In theory, our city-born mother understood the hold nature held on her country-born daughters, but it was the practice that gave her fits. She did not understand dirt’s affinity for girls’ clothes, nor that shoes were optional accessories. Every pot and pan she owned had, at one time or another housed every creepy-crawly critter that was to be found in the Ozark Mountains and, inexplicably, she took a dim view on such housing. She was raised in a southern city and sent to classes by her parents to be trained in the feminine arts of dance, piano and voice. On Sundays the de rigueur of her upbringing required that her shoes and purse match and that they be coordinated with her dress, hat, and gloves. So you see, it could only be a mystery to her how she managed to spawn her unlikely daughters, and to us it was a cosmic joke.
As a child I loved the woods and all that it sheltered-momma was less enthusiastic. Much to momma’s credit, when I was eight, she bought me my first pair of binoculars and bird book. They were my first grown-up possessions. I suspect she was trying to direct my interests in more genteel directions, away from pursuits like poking through the rabbit guts my cat left. Unfortunately for momma I could manage both.
A two-hundred acre bottomland wood lay between home and school. The landowner was absentee, at least that was the rumor on my elementary school grapevine. Deer trails crisscrossed the forest. Huge trees beckoned. There was real dirt in that bottomland not just red Ozark clay! I’m breathless thinking about that lovely dark dirt even now! Offering such amenities, the place was overrun with children claiming the land for their own wild ways and I was among them.
One day, a mother angry that her snotty-nosed, momma’s boy of a brat had been taunted by older boys, called all the mothers and whinged on about, “do you really know where your children are?” That afternoon on our way home we kids found, milling at the wood’s edge, an embarrassed troupe of mothers who, to their dismay, didn’t really know where their children were. Unfortunately for me my discomfited mother was one of them.
Momma began to brood, “What if there was an emergency, and I needed to find you?”
“Any kid can find me.”
Trying not to scare me, but succeeding in frightening herself, she persisted in her line of thought, “What if, and not saying anything is going to happen, but what if you fell and broke your leg?”
“You, knowing exactly where I was at, would not do anything for my broken leg-it’d still be broken.” No answer pleased her and that one in particular ticked her off there was no way she letting me go out into that wood again until she had seen it for herself. Saturday morning momma drove me to the housing addition that skirted the wood, and at road’s end we trekked out over the abandoned construction site. Bulldozers had left gaping ruts, clay pits abounded and between the woods and us lay a hundred-yard morass.
Three quarters of the way across momma stopped before a mud hole and stared at the distant trees, sighing she considered for me for a moment before speaking, “Don’t break your leg, and be home for dinner.” Even though every fiber of her told her not to let me go, my momma did. What a gift! She trusted me; she was confident of my abilities even if she wasn’t confident that the world at large wouldn’t hurt me. Hours were spent chasing, hiding from, and ambushing other children, forts built, trees climbed, frogs chased, mistakes made, and lessons learned all which gave me a confidence about my own physicality and a self-esteem that no over-protective parent could impart.
I tell you this story, because I don’t see children out on their own much in the woods today. Understandably, parents are scared by 24-hour news fear-mongers, but at some point reason needs to take over…the bogeyman always existed and always will, and some bogeymen are real; fortunately, their numbers are small. Bad things happen to good children no matter how watchful their parents. Learn something from my city-mother: Trust good things do happen and sometimes, just sometimes, you just have to drive your daughters to the end of the road and turn them loose in the woods!