For a writing assignment on Western New York memoir
Dad builds us a tree house — a nice one with with a rope ladder into a tall sugar maple. The sides open. There’s a mattress where we can hang out and read books. We never do any if that, though. The tree house is a few yards into the woods, which are dark haunted by eerie creaking sounds.
The pastures, though, are full of happy discoveries and the best kind of mysteries. Milkweed with its dry pods of silk; gall balls left on tall, brown weeds — temporary homes for metamorphosing insects; fronds of goldenrod and purple asters; puff balls, if we’re lucky.
Neither my sister nor I are really cut out for the country. We were both born in town, carried from the hospital to tidy houses in neighborhoods with garages and sidewalks. And then my parents veered sharply left of their shag-haired, mod booted small-town trajectory. They build a log house three miles outside of town. It wasn’t a pioneer cabin but a two-story design from a kit, delivered on a truck like an oversized set of Lincoln Logs.
The cabin has apple orchards on two sides, woods to the back and one neighbor at the end of a long driveway. We have 15 acres, a pond, a garden and a barn. My sister and I hate all of that and love the moments we can sneak away to the back room with the TV, Mom’s old yearbooks and a complete set of encyclopedias.
The whole of the world that we want is in those encyclopedias. In entries about sloths, zebras, buccaneers, Edwardians, bound feet, voodoo, bandit queens, Siamese twins and the history of rock ‘n’ roll. We also have a collection of National Geographic magazines in the loft of the barn. They came from an auction where Mom bought Victorian petticoats and Dad bought antique woodworking tools. The magazines are a castoff, tossed into the loft. My sister and I climb the ladder above the hay bales and horse stalls to pore over photos of pierced lips, gauged ears, elongated necks. Castles, pyramids, standing stones, entire villages carved into cliffs.
We’re racing into the wider world, the idyllic clutch of our log cabin childhood at our backs. We want newer and bigger — Burger King milkshakes, Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, the minivans our friends’ parents drive. Roller skates, wrists of Madonna bracelets, Twister games, fashion magazines. Pop tarts and neon t-shirts; none of the carob cake and calico with which our parents pad our days.
And still. The larger world is just beyond our 15 acres, but there are microcosms that draw us with their own magnetism. The soft bottom of the pond, pudding-smooth beneath our feet. The triumph of discovering a box turtle and the tingling fear of crossing a snapping turtle. The perfect purple ink of poke berries and blackberries. The crumbling rock wall marking our northern property line and the slumping row of sheep nose apple trees at the southern boundary.
In the south pasture there are snarls of briars to be avoided and lanky clusters of sumac to be pondered. Poison, we’re told, but those furry berries just out of our reach looked like velvet gems. Dad takes blow torch to the tent caterpillars and we shriek as the webs flame and crumple. Everything makes us itch, but some itches are worth it: The unmoved grass we have to stomp through to get to the old hulk of a truck being reclaimed by nature. We frighten rabbits and skirt mud pits that surely could double as quicksand.
On our excursions we wear outfits from the dress-up box. Rejects from Mom’s vintage clothing purchases, thrift-shop finds, Halloween costume leftovers. I like a 1940s tulip skirt and a wide-brimmed straw hat or bell bottoms with rainbow suspenders. In the cricket-loud loneliness of my world, I fill in space with stories. Made-up names, made-up places. I tell myself how to be a grownup in some other place when all I know is how to be a kid in this place.
Summer is a brief eternity of nights too hot to sleep and days that swoon from hazy mornings into bright afternoons. The road, where no one ever passes but the mailman, melts in the sun. Tar bubbles, poked with a stick, spurt boiling water. Chicory, chamomile, horse chestnut, black-eyed Susan: a wild garden just beyond the asphalt. If we walk past the apple orchard there’s a rutted path that leads to a secret row of peach trees. And just beyond that, the migrant worker shacks — and who knows what happens there.
We retreat from the heat into the north pasture where someone has pushed the brush into heaps away from where the horses graze. Over the months, the brush piles — taller than a man — have settled. We clear away enough sticks to make a doorway into a hollow middle. There are two rooms, one for each of us. We spend weeks decorating them with chairs, tables, old dishes, broken treasures. I hang a scraggly potted fern. My sister posts a “Keep Out” sign.
“Why don’t you play in the tree house?” Mom wants to know.
But we have our own apartments now. We’re city dwellers tucked into small, indoor spaces, fashioning our meticulous interiors even as the great outdoors surges at our thresholds.