“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.” Elizabeth Lawrence
I had probably the best childhood ever. Thinking about it is like seeing sunlight on a Kodak 1970's photograph. I'm there somewhere, leaning as far as possible over a puddle, but all you can see is a pale, over-exposed burst of light.
All of the vignettes I can imagine when I close my eyes are outside. The only thing I can remember about the inside of the houses I lived in is floor and couch upholstery patterns. It seems I spent a great deal of time studying these patterns. Following them, tracing them with a toe or finger, trying to walk from one end of the house to the other only stepping on a certain type of square.
I had parents who loved to be outside. They pulled me as a baby in a sled while they went snowshoeing or skiing, or I was out on a blanket on the lawn, or in a pack while they forded streams and hiked trails. The clear air fed my brain, and I grew up curious and thoughtful and deeply investigative. The new curled fronds of ferns and the behavior of slugs were fascinating. The hardest thing was trying to follow a single ant from his hill out into the wild. It makes your eyes cross; it is practically impossible.
I adored little paths through the woods. Nothing was more fun than following a wee fairy trail, joining up with other smaller paths, getting a bit gleefully and scarily lost. Studying the veins of leaves. The bark of the birch tree. The way a log would slowly rot from year to year. Guiding rivulets of muddy water with sticks and piles of sand. Finding the most beautiful rocks in gravel and staring into their mauve diamond depths.
When I was a trifle older and braver, I ventured across the field, through the fences, down into the swamp. There were buttercups, and moss, and clovers, patches of strawberries and always the sky. To stop and lift your face, and only see the great blue, the clouds shifting. In winter, to catch the eye of a single snowflake and follow it down, glimpse its crystal signature before it melted in your palm.
I embraced summer storms - all of us kids did. Some of the best memories were lying on the living room carpet, safely back from the window, watching the lightning spark and blaze on the black sky across the field, the thunder loud and deliciously frightening. And later, snug in bed, hearing the distant roll of thunder growing faint, and the scent of rain through an open window.
The smell of a barn in spring, of warm milk spraying against the sides of a metal pail. Straw beds for calves, and kittens curled around their wary mother. Feeding bits of green leaves through the wire to the grateful chickens. I know I did a fair amount of work, but I can't remember that part as clearly. Only trying to get the milk pail as full as mom did, and failing miserably. And getting the eggs from under the pecking, flapping, stinking hens, a feat of espionage and courage worthy of a military spy in deepest USSR.
One time the dratted rooster chased me and got his foolish red and white head stuck in my black rubber boot, wings flailing wildly as I ran, kitchen pot held before me like an offering to the gods. Fear and common sense battled it out for the safe return of the rooster's head to its rightful place! But did he deserve to live? I calmed my racing heart long enough to grab his miserable neck and throw him behind me, then ran like the devil for the house.
This was the same stretch of ground I took one Christmas day, going the other direction, candy cane in hand and mouth, skipping happily through the frosty sun and snow to the barn. Suddenly the candy cane was down my throat, mostly whole, and wholly stuck. I slowed down, and with a supreme act of will, let the candy cane melt for a while before gagging it up. I was fine; I had survived. I carried on, breaking the candy cane into small bits. Nothing would ruin this Christmas day.
It was also the stretch of ground I pulled my pant-leg up to mid-thigh and examined the pitchfork hole my brother's friend had put into it. It was bleeding, pretty bad. Not bad enough to tell mom, or anyone else, but it did keep me away from the playhouse trapdoor for the rest of the afternoon. I still have the scar. The green playhouse my dad had built, and outfitted with shelves and a porch, and painted. My mom had made curtains and given us house-y things to put here and there. What love. We didn't appreciate it enough, as kids don't, and paid them back by jumping off the roof onto the trampoline and giving them heart attacks.
We whined about spending ten minutes folding laundry or cleaning the bathroom. And never batted an eyelash about literal hours holding a garden hose over the homemade skating rink in the dead of a winter night. Soaking gloves, frozen faces, iced boots were nothing when you could get up in the morning and see that bigger section of smooth skating glory.
We climbed trees (well, my brother did and I stood trembling at the bottom praying he wouldn't break anything irreplaceable), built rather amazing, intricate forts (again, I mainly did the heavy sawing and passed nails, hammers, dug around for rusty tools that had been left out in the rain, and that dad mercifully forgot he ever owned). We built an entire system of walkways up in the trees.
There was a Tarzan rope swing made of horse lead ropes, mysteriously vanished from the barn wall. We slid down the tin roof of the hay sheds and landed in piles of grass or snow, depending. We ate new carrots out of the garden, rhubarb until our mouths were raw, and could get through a barbed-wire fence in two seconds flat.
[I no longer view barbed wire fences with the same sense of ease. It's become more of an Olympic event, it seems. Fairly impossible, with the bending of limbs into forgotten positions, and the flexibility of a gymnast. But I used to be good at it.]
There was school, and I liked that. The bus dropped us at the end of the driveway, and there was the blissful walk down the curving stretch of road, leaves falling like golden coins, or red petals, or orange blossoms, with green fairies peaking out from behind the poplars, which bowed to let us pass.
I see it in the kids I work with at school, now and then, and fairly often in my own children, though their heads bowed over screens break my heart sometimes. I know it in myself once in awhile, even in these days. Imagination, keeping us alive.