We pushed rocks and scooped sand, hauled logs and built walls. Water flowed gurgling like a happy baby. It churned free from the ice and snow. In its swirling midst, my sister and I stood knee deep in its barely tolerable temperature and slowly watched a scraggly piece of earth by the brook become our home as we pushed and rearranged “our land” to become a “civilized place.” Whatever we were making, it was becoming our very own pirate’s cove from which we set sail our bark shaped boats on the tumultuous spring waters. Those boats would have to battle “large, fierce fish” and stay afloat over the rock dam we had created.
I sat on the sand bar we created and realized how much I had been thinking about and subconsciously defining the term ‘home.’ Reflecting on my most recent travels, I wondered why traveling brought me such joy. Could it be because I found myself at ease in so many places? Could it be that my family’s place in Vermont taught me how to make a home in so many others? I moved a rock to a better resting place to prop my feet up on and watched Icky, my little sister who we have called by that name since birth, walk a rotting log. Knowing with each step she challenged the laws of physics, I did not scold or warn. Her steps took her closer to the center and as expected the tree snapped. As nimbly as a cat she pounced into the water below only to land on her feet and search out another dead tree to walk across.
Yes, this was the way in which we passed time. I have never been to the emergency room, broken a bone, or set foot in a hospital more than once a year and even then it was always for Christmas caroling. We live not behind tv screens but in the outdoors. Though my body may be marred by and scarred from playing hard, I suffer no worse side effects…(perhaps I ought to knock on wood right now, but I’ve climbed too many trees to need anymore). In some ways, it’s not the bravest of children but the bravest of parents to allow one’s children to experiment with gravity, fire, and physics because those forces always win when the variables all align right (or wrong for when the variables are all right, things go terribly wrong). I thank them wholeheartedly for letting us children take those risks. Kids have more smarts than we grant them, and they learn quickly from the good and the bad, the successes and the failures of life. This is why I looked at my youngest sister and allowed her to face the forces alone. Yes she broke trees sometimes, but more often than not she climbed into the topmost branches of big ol’ pines and rested securely in the arm of a tree. Her own arms embrace the sky, and the arms of the tree embrace her.
This was our paradise, and any child granted the freedom to explore and build their space (no matter how messy or imperfect it may be) knows it. We passed summers in the brooks fishing, picking flowers, killing time, and digging holes because as smiling, teasing friends told us, “we could dig to China.” At nights with all the siblings, we caught fireflies and then spent hours looking up at the stars above while surrounded by the little flickering stars below. Lying between two worlds we told stories. Years later, though my siblings explore in other places, those of us still at home play just like before. Just today I was neglecting my books and pushing rocks around in the brook like a stone mason. Just today I was breaking old trees and hurling them over my head to build walls. Just today I was competing with Buddy and Icky on our make-shift high bar showing off what a pole vaulter could do and they could not…and I admit vice versa. Even now my body feels a soreness that promises deep sleep.
Must I even mention the summer blackberry picking? These almost always ended with stomach aches or at least a spilled bucket of berries because someone tried to climb a maple sapling berry pail in hand. Summer workouts consisted of racing up and down the Big Hill until we dropped to our knees. Each of us bore the brunt of some stupid dare such as biking down the hill with no breaks, but we are all alive and well and all the stronger for it. We cheer each other on when a sibling does the incredible. On April 22, 2016 Joshua broke the West Point obstacle course record. Those of us still using the great outdoors for a gym train together in the same way that James and Josh pushed each other towards that record at West Point. Even though James was never given the chance to demonstrate his readiness to shatter it, he left the responsibility up to Josh. We coach each other and cheer louder than anybody else when our own surpasses us. Every day friends come into our lives and give richly to us. We do not write our legacy. It writes us. A great part of our successes came from coaches, mentors, and individuals who walked into our lives. Our legacy is written by the people we meet, the schools we attend, and the choices we make. Our legacy began with a mother who didn’t plan on having nine kids and a father who did.
When I write, I am transported and invited to be someone else. I think of myself less in my writing as my own person but as “that girl on the street.” I merely translate what she does, thinks, and says. What she says now is “Life is beautiful and people make it better.”
Written April 22, 2016