The isolation imposed by both location and restrictions allowed only my two brothers as playmates. In our early years we were in each other’s constant company – playing and fighting and name calling and poking to get some kind of reaction. The three of us shared one small bedroom until childhood began to creep towards adolescence and an upstairs room was finished off for my brothers. The front yard hosted our three-player wiffle ball games that usually ended with shouts of: “cheater” or an angry “I quit!”. We often trekked through the open unmowed area on the far side of grandma’s trailer looking for milkweed pods to crack open, releasing the sticky white liquid along with the white fluff inside. Sometimes we stripped pigweed seeds from long beckoning heads to fill pint size canning jars, racing to see whose reached the rim first – always my younger brother with his huge hands and determined nimble fingers. We sometimes set up a table by the road and tried to sell them to the few cars that passed by. Occasionally someone stopped and looked at our strange offering, but no one seemed to want seeds for the invasive weeds!
One summer mom rescued some old lumber and plywood and surprised us with a tree house – an open platform with 2X4 railings wedged between several small trees about five feet off the ground. It stood at the edge of the woods, where I gazed from above at the dense growth beyond, but never stepped more than a few yards into. The tractor trail my father used regularly cut through the thick green growth that blocked sight and sun. Even this rutted path was not enough to entice me to risk exploring the creaking branches, rustling leaves, and squawks and squeals that populated the shadows. I always had a sense of being watched from above and below, of a presence, waiting. Fear can be a good thing, an instinctual alertness to signal trouble and maintain safety. But this was the same woods my father entered each day and returned from, unscathed, each evening. Was I afraid of getting lost? Or hurt? Did the apparent safety of our cocooned existence end at the tree line? Had warnings of the dangers of the world from my overcautious mother – communicated through both words and actions – conditioned the depth of my dread? Strict rules for safety limited not only potential danger but also the experience required to build a sense of competence and confidence in my own ability to handle what came my way. I never remember exploring and learning about the secrets of the life that lived in the woods with my father or mother. I felt too vulnerable to venture in on my own – even with my brothers nearby. Is courage built on the back of encouragement? Of lessons learned to become familiar with the unknown?
When the leaves began to fall and light slipped between the naked limbs I felt greater ease at the edge of the woods, although I still did not enter. Snow forts took the place of the tree house when cold air picked up warmer moisture as it passed over nearby Lake Ontario; transforming it into the crystalline flakes that fell in such quantity the bulldozer needed to be engaged to clear it. Days when the sun bounced off branches glistening with layers of ice edged fear towards fantasy. When the snow sat lightly on limbs, encasing the forest in a soft silence I could almost hear the trees whisper: “welcome…” I did accompany my father and brothers into the woods in search of evergreens to decorate for Christmas. I did join my brothers to play between the snow covered trees as my mother bent to pick the feather pine she used to make wreaths. I did help stomp a path along the tractor trail to lengthen sled rides from the top of the mountain of plowed snow.
The fresh buds of May returned year after year and shadows always grew with the greenery, as did the restraint of my steps into the woods. Today I still love unadorned limbs that reveal shapes and angles against the sky. I still love the muted peacefulness of a walk on a snow covered day. I still hesitate – but then continue on – as I enter the shadows of the woods