As the boys finished school for the year this week, I found myself reflecting not only on what they had both accomplished this year, and what lies in store for them this summer for enjoyment, but on my own childhood and summers past.
I wasn’t much of a fan of school. It wasn’t the work involved, nor the learning, that bothered me about it. It was more to do with the prospect of spending month upon month consigned to an atmosphere I was ill-suited to be in. I was never particularly athletic, nor outgoing. Therefore, as the days of elementary school waned and middle- and high-school approached, I found my circle of friends reduced greatly as my peers separated into cliques.
There were those who showed physical prowess…those who showed intellectual prowess…and those who showed social prowess. I was not a member of any of these groups. Unfortunately there was not a clique for ‘introverted children of divorced parents who have taken refuge in the society of reading and are usually debilitated by the notion of making new friends and insinuating themselves into groups.’
I was a reticent child…who eventually became a somewhat reticent adult. I found more enjoyment, due to this being my nature, in opening a new book or exploring the woods surrounding my childhood home than I ever found in the company of my familiars. When the summer came, and I was deemed old enough to care for myself during the day sufficiently to escape the need for a sitter, I reveled in the freedom I had in spending full days completely alone thinking my strange thoughts and planning out my excursions in the radius from home afforded to me as ‘acceptable’ for me to navigate.
Before that time, I was the daytime ward of a local woman who, on her own, had charge of no less than fifteen children that she ‘babysat’ during the day. Her husband drove the school bus in my area. Their home, no more than half a mile from my own, took in more than a dozen children for the summer, during work hours, in the days before daycare was more regulated and each caregiver had a maximum number of children they could be responsible for.
Days there were spent in the front yard of their home, no matter the temperature outside. Inside there were other adults, but they spent all day in one of the upstairs bedrooms smoking pot and doing goodness only knows what else. Occasionally one of them, the girlfriend of one of the woman’s adult sons, would wander down the stairs for something to eat or drink, and when the bedroom door opened, if you happened to be in the vicinity of the stairs, a cloud of smoke, accompanied by a smell I would not identify until my teen years, would roll down the stairs like an out of control freight train careening down a steep hill. The morning was frittered away digging in the dirt or playing with toys or simply sitting on the sparsely grassed lawn and talking with other children.
Except for me. I participated in these things, certainly, but more often than not I found my way up to the small, nearby village library. I had been granted permission by my mother to go this far, though no further, and check out books as often as the library was open, which was not every day.
The librarian, an older woman with a welcoming smile and even more welcoming voice, would greet me amiably each time I entered through the door and ask what treasure I was searching for that day. She introduced me to the ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators’ series, finding that I was a fan of mysteries even at a young age, and did her best to steer me clear of books ‘less appropriate’ for my age, which were grotesquely dust jacketed horror novels in the ‘adult’ section of the one room library. Unbeknownst to her my own personal library at home contained titles by Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and a host of other authors of blood-soaked tales of terror. I thanked her, always, for her recommendations, and immersed myself immediately upon returning to the home of the woman who watched me during the day, aside from her one hour weekday soap opera indulgence in which you had to be bleeding out or on fire to gain her attention, and found a quiet, shady spot (a scarcity on some days with so many children and very few trees in the yard) to read in until pickup time when my mother came to retrieve me and my brother.
Once I was home, I secluded myself just as much as I did during the days, although I was able to travel further than during the days. The woods behind my home became a South American jungle and I imagined myself an Indiana Jones type explorer on the run from violent natives as I wound through trees and jumped across the trickling brook that wove through the woods behind my house. The wide open field across the street from us, a popular local sledding spot in the winter, became the plains of a foreign country and often times I would carefully cross our busy street, descend down over the embankment on the other side, and walk out into the expanse before me, crackling and buzzing with summertime insects and the heat of the sun overhead baking the breezeless sky, the tall summer grass swallowing me whole until I could no longer see my house behind me. This never frightened me. Rather, it comforted me to know that not only could I not see the house….the house, and anyone in there, could no longer see me.
I traipsed through that field to a small pond up over a hill, not far from where the grass gave way to trees, and laid down by the smooth waters, my body compressing the tall grass into a makeshift bed, decidedly softer than the ground beneath. There I would lay, for hours, day-dreaming about far off people and places; places I had read about in books, places where I would one day take myself and bid a not-so-fond farewell to this life, and this place, and to all the long afternoons of childhood where I wished and hoped with all my might to be anywhere but there….to be anything but frightened….to be anyone but me.
The summers of my childhood eventually ended. After school was done for me, I began working and earning a living. No longer did I have months to roam the woods or peddle my bike or climb trees, or lay on a pile of grass and listen to the hums and the laughter of the bugs all around me, singing away my fears and hesitations with their comforting chorus. No longer was I confined to no more than a one mile radius from my home, unless it was a day that I had a special dispensation to ride my bike over to the main village of the town I grew up in. Now I was confined to a chair….sitting at a desk….stifling my creatively active mind long enough to focus on the task I was being paid for. At times I was successful, other times not.
I ventured from home over time, but not terribly far. Even now, with a mere two hour drive, I could park my truck in the driveway of the house I grew up in. I could cross the street, go down over the embankment, and enter the expansive field that would be stretched out before me. But these days there is a large, modern elementary school there, which has displaced the elementary school I attended in my youth. A black tar road weaves through the tall grass to reach the school from the main road. Other children play there. Other laughs ring out from their mouths in happiness. Other tears fall from their eyes in despair. Other day dreams have supplanted my own.
No matter how far I have drifted from that place and that time, part of me will always wish to live that carefree again. To experience, even for a day, that fabled nirvana that our parents warn us not to squander known as childhood. We are only children for a while, but we are adults for the rest of our lives. We must be. The world frowns upon us if we are not.
I stood, not long ago, looking out over that field and a sense of nostalgia washed over me. My mind pulled up images and feelings that I’d long tucked away. The bugs still hum and the grass still grows and the sun still bakes the sky above that field. And all the day dreams that I left there are still sunken into the ground, hoarded away in the dirt, the treasures of my childhood mind, lost to time…lost to age….lost to the cares and concerns and woes and triumphs and joys of life.
I don’t recall all of them now. They all just seem to melt into one long meandering train of thought. They, the unfettered hopes and anguishes of childhood, remain buried in that field, beside that pond, trampled on by the feet of other children, who will perhaps one day visit there again, and look out over the tips of the grass and recall the hours they spent there, just as I do now. Perhaps they, like me, will wonder what ever happened to those hopes and anguishes, and when that child, the child they were….the child I was….vanished into adolescence and adulthood…never to return.