“Go make a friend!” My mother directs, impatiently slinging a dishtowel across one shoulder as she bends over the washing machine to shove in just one more wadded up crib sheet.
As if it were that easy.
“There’s no one to play with. There’s nothing to do!”
The few weeks of summer seem to last forever.
“Well, there’s plenty of work waiting for you. You might as well get started folding this clean basket of linens.”
I am out the screen door in an instant– dashing down the back steps.
“Don’t be gone too long! And be careful!!” She calls out over the crash of the old wood frame as it snaps closed with the force of my haste.
Overgrown with stands of melaleuca, palm and banyan trees tangled with sea grapes and wild hibiscus bushes—the lake is where I end up playing when there is nothing else to do. The babies are napping and it’s my chance for freedom—to get away from the house and the daily chores.
My bare feet sink into the soft sand dunes as I wander the verdant green clusters of foliage, picking leaves and flowers as I go along. I have learned how to extricate the delicate pistil of the hibiscus and savor the perfumed drops of nectar on my tongue.
An egret announces my arrival and flaps away in search of solitude. The minnows flit amongst emerald clumps of algae, catching dapples of sunlight. If my big brothers had come along with their fishing poles I might have waded into the shallows at the edge of the lake and let the tiny fish gather around my feet, wincing at the slippery flutter and tickle between my toes. But one never knows what lurks in this dark water.
The thick, wide arms of the banyan trees are good for climbing. Sometimes I reach my arms as far around as they will go and just linger there with my face against the heavy trunk. Even though they are only trees, I imagine they feel my touch. They can hear me and understand when I tell them of my sadness and how I yearn for a friend. Sometimes I stay like that for a long time, comforted by the solid strength of a mute, but sympathetic presence that seems to know my heart.
I tell my troubles to the trees and they keep my secrets. How I am sick of the chores and the babies and how I hate Ed and wish he would go away and never come back. How I wish I could go away and never come back. But who will help my mom?
The trees are wise and I imagine they have seen so much, just standing here in silent observation. I am sure that I recognize agreement with my complaints in their whispering clatter of leaves.
The trees support me when I climb as high as there are footholds small enough to grasp my nine-year old feet. Straddling the highest branch I can manage, I imagine the earth below as my kingdom. I am the queen of the castle. I sing tuneless songs and write stories on the blue sky, but I am always watchful for alligators. A lesson learned early on. Always be prepared to run.
We believe they can’t climb trees, so I am safe here. If you have to run, you must always run in a zigzag pattern. That will confuse them. I am prepared for this eventuality. I always keep a good climbing tree within view in case I need to run. Yes, I am trained for this. Always have a backup plan. Keep myself protected. And never talk to strangers.
These are the interminable days before I started spending summers with Nana. Before I became so “uppity”—poking my nose into family business, intervening in Mom and Ed’s fights. Driving a wedge between them. Before they thought it was best to send me away for a while. Yes, I was the problem.
But it is okay. I like the peace and quiet. No babies to diaper or feed. Just the two of us, spending our days engaged in housekeeping and tending the yard. I learn to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, the fragrance of dark, rich soil in my hands. The earthy sweetness of a slow-simmer of fresh-picked tomatoes and peppers.
I feel like an only child, for once. And yet, she doesn’t treat me like a child. Sometimes we stay up all night watching TV with cups of hot tea and almond windmill cookies. She laughs at my jokes and silly antics…never telling me to hush up or calm down.
We spend lazy, humid afternoons listening to the pelt of raindrops against the jalousie windows and the crisp turning of pages. We rest from the morning’s labor on cool, starched sheets in separate rooms with doors wide open– engrossed in our latest stories.
Sometimes I tiptoe to her bedroom doorway to find her eyes closed, book laid open on her chest. I stand in silent observation at her bedside watching for the rise and fall, listening intently, for her soft breath—terrified that she will slip away from me.
At a moment’s notice, everything can change. This is a lesson I learned early on. To always have a back-up plan. And a good, strong climbing tree. In case I need to run.