Where We Once Were: Stories of Childhood

My father and I are going hiking together, just him and me. We get up before sunrise. We have a tiny hatchback car, and he folds down the back seat and makes a little nest for me: foam rubber on the hard plastic, blankets and pillows so I can go back to sleep. I watch the sunrise out the window, orange and pink and yellow spread out on the horizon, turning now and then to see my father’s profile against the window. He’s listening to the news, NPR, with the sound turned down. I go back to sleep, rocked by the jostling of the car.

An hour or so later we stop at a rest area to eat breakfast. He cuts a cantaloupe with his pocket knife, scraping out the seeds onto a newspaper on a picnic table. He gives me a slice and I dig in, the juice sticky on my chin and cheeks. He knows it’s one of my favorites. He pours milk from school-size cartons into those tiny, one-serving boxes of cereal and we eat it with plastic spoons. It’s the kind of cereal I’m never allowed to have at home, sugary and so artificial that it changes the color of the milk. The chill of morning is still in the air and everything is wet and cold with dew.

We have a great day together, hiking and talking. I even see a little black snake crossing the trail. But most of all I remember being half asleep while my father drives, and that simple breakfast with the expressway going by. I know my father wants to spend the day with me, has planned and made provision for us to be together. I know my father loves me.

Nowadays my father tells me to have fun with my kid everyday. He says he knows it seems like I’ll be a parent forever, but it will be over before I know it, so if it isn’t happening on its own, make it happen. See to it that it happens. And I wonder, was that hiking trip the kind of thing he means? He sure was good at it. It seemed to come naturally, and now that I have my own child, I envy him that gift immensely.

I have always been blonde, and there was a time when my blondeness was natural. While I would love to have that hair now, at the time I certainly didn’t appreciate it (not that most six-year-olds are known for their interest in hair). My interests, for example, were more steeped in two general areas: the Japanese beetles on the flower bushes in front of my parents’ summer lodge in upstate New York and the curls on my younger sister’s head, just as shiny as the beetles, and the color of a slightly used penny. Nina was three that summer, still toddling around fat-legged and clumsy, following me and generally cramping my style. But her hair… I would look at it against the leaves and the hydrangea, the Japanese beetles against its burnished copper tangles: all this wasted on a creature who, left to her own devices, would just as soon devour cat food as ice cream. Honestly, I don’t remember how the idea came to me, and yet once it did, there seemed to be no other option: Nina did not deserve her hair, and it had to go.

I took the big scissors out of the kitchen drawer. My parents were sunning themselves on the back deck and seemed glad Nina and I were amusing ourselves in the front yard. It was a hot, sleepy day. The beetles appeared to be too lazy to raise their back legs in z formations, and this uncharacteristic pose seemed to me like encouragement to continue with my plan. Surely, if the rest of the universe was out of whack, I should proceed.

It only occurred to me after I glimpsed the bald top of her head that removing Nina’s curls might not have been the perfect crime. In fact, when my mother called us in for lunch, I began to think that there might even be consequences to my actions. Nina went toddling off into the house, and I began to contemplate the best place to hide the scissors. Surely, without evidence, my parents would be reasonable and understand that I’d had nothing to do with Nina’s new look. Perhaps in time they would even be grateful for the extra time afforded them now that they didn’t have to wash her hair and spend hours untangling that mop.

I could hear footsteps against the loose floorboards, and tossed the incriminating hair into the bushes. The scissors? Well, I figured that my father would understand that as a young lady, there were all sorts of things I could have been doing with those scissors – like making paper dolls for my dear younger sister – and that the disappearance of Nina’s hair was purely circumstantial and had nothing to do with me and what was in my sweaty hand. What I failed to account for, however, was the white halter-top I was wearing; it was covered with loose hairs. I was looking down at it, clutching the scissors, when my father approached.

“Erica,” he said, “did you just cut your sister’s hair?”

I knew this was an important moment. I don’t know why, but I knew that this might have been the most blatantly bad thing I had ever done and that things could go in many directions. If I somehow got away with it, I figured I could rule my parents forever. But if I got caught…well, that didn’t really seem possible at the time. Without my confession, how could my father prove it had been me?

“No.” I had been reading enough Nancy Drew and Happy Hollister books to know that it was important to make eye contact – my father would be no match for my wide, innocent eyes.

It is important to note here that I was immensely relieved that it was my father who had appeared to deal with me. My mother would have been screaming and cursing and would already have rendered me incapable of continuing my charade. But even then, I knew my father had potential to gloss over this little mess, just so long as I could convince him of my innocence.

He sighed, taking in the scene: my hair-covered chest, the scissors still trembling in my right hand, fingers still looped through the handles.

“Erica,” he said, in the tone I knew signaled a lecture. “Sit down. Let’s talk about this.”

To any passersby, we must have looked like a Norman Rockwell moment gone slightly awry in late summer: a father and daughter on the porch, talking about the meaning of life in the shortening light, bees buzzing, birds twittering, and a little girl lying through her missing teeth. My father lectured me for what seemed like hours about the importance of being honest with one’s parents. He told me that he and my mother would always stand up for me and would always take my side in matters for the rest of my life. But I had to promise that I would always tell them the truth, even if I lied to everyone else in the world – a proposition that honestly had not yet occurred to me.

After he was done talking, my father looked at me again. “Erica, if you tell me the truth about cutting your sister’s hair, you won’t get in trouble. I just want you to understand how important this is. You have to tell your mother and me the truth. Now tell me: did you cut your sister’s hair?”

This was my moment, literally, of truth. Even through my haze of fear and distraction (even then, I was spacey!), I knew this was significant. But something kept telling me that if I didn’t confess, my parents would have to take my word for it. I opened my eyes as wide as I possibly could, looked my father right in the eye, and said…

“No, I did not.”

I got a spanking.

Kick-the-can was a religion on my block when I was a kid. As dusk fell and some poor sucker counted to 20, you ran for your favorite hiding spot, hoping your parents wouldn’t call you in for bed until this round was over. The buzzing sounds of cicadas and crickets filled the air and dew collected on the grass, getting your ankles wet as you ran and ran, legs too long for your body, feet not quite entirely under your control.

We kids could get from one end of the block to the other without ever going out into the front yards or being seen from the street. It was sacred knowledge to us: how to hop every fence, how to climb each tree, which yard had the scary dog, and which house belonged to the old lady who’d call your parents if she saw you. We knew which house had a fence so close to the garage that you could climb it to get onto the garage roof, a forbidden and yet perfect hiding spot.

Unfortunately, the most perfect spots always seemed to be spoiled by a catch-22: the spot was so perfect, so absolutely “unfindable,” that no one was ever going to find you. You could stay up in that tree, or on that garage roof, or behind that old shed, all night, and no one was ever going to find you. So eventually you came out again, more out of boredom than anything else. And then it always came down to sneaking back to home base undetected.

Of course, this whole process could take some time when you had 10 kids all thinking they had the best spot in the world, trying their best to stay there as long as their child’s amount of patience would allow them. Everyone dreaded being “it” because you knew you could be walking around, peeking into corners in the spooky summer darkness for a long, long time while someone daydreamed up on a tree branch. And as soon as you got out of sight of home base, those who hadn’t hid far away came out, kicked the can, and it started all over again with the shout of “oli-oli-ocean-free.”

There was really no good strategy for being “it,” and a lot of times you’d end up stuck with it all night long. Normally we’d have bullied one of the younger kids into taking a job like that, but it was no fun having them be “it” — where was the challenge in that? They’d never catch anyone but the other little kids, and sooner or later they’d just start crying and go tell on you, anyway. So us big kids had to hope for the best and pray to choose the right number when the classic “bubble-gum-bubble-gum-in-a-dish” chant was used to select who would have to be “it.”

One night I was stuck as “it,” and hating every moment. I knew this would be the last round of the night; it was truly dark out, and all of our parents would be calling us in very soon. To me, being alone in the dark as “it” was just scarier than hiding. Knowing that there actually could be someone hiding behind that bush or in that scary shed (even if that someone was just my nine-year-old next-door neighbor) filled me with terror and usually doomed me to long, long nights as “it” — I was too scared to range very far from home base, and all the other kids knew it.

Suddenly, as I paced in front of my yard, straining to hear the faint creaking or shuffling noise that might reveal someone sneaking towards home base, a slight movement to my left caught my eye. I looked, than screamed and literally jumped in terror. The two garbage bags on the curb in front of my house were moving, and horrible, moaning sounds were coming from them. I jumped back and nearly wet my pants as two horrible zombie-like creatures emerged from the bags, their arms held out in front of them like mummies!

But my horror quickly dissipated when I realized the zombies were both laughing too hard to keep up their act. It was my mother and a neighbor with pantyhose over their faces and hooded sweatshirts, playing a practical joke on us kids. I can honestly say I may never have been more scared in my life, all thanks to a little nylon and my mother’s mischievous sense of humor.

It’s just one of the many stories that let me know, now and then, that my mother was special, better and more fun than other people’s mothers, and that I was really, really lucky. It’s the kind of mom I wish I was. Sometimes she still gets that look on her face today, and I always have to wonder what she’s up to.

“I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health for better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

I took this vow quite seriously.

As a first-year member of a local livestock 4-H club, I had to select a market animal for my project. My first choice was a beef cow. However, my parents decided this project would not be appropriate for a nine-year-old girl. Instead, we chose a lamb.

My lamb that year had been bottle-fed, which made him especially friendly. He easily followed me everywhere on his lead. I named him Spot.

After almost a year of preparation, I was thrilled to show Spot at the county fair. The county fair was an event so big in my hometown that officials cancelled school for most of the week.

The sheep barn at the fair was so exciting and busy. I was very proud to have my own stall with my name on it. I remember the cold, rainy October weather and the warmth the livestock barn provided, and the constant sounds of animals crying out and rustling in their pens, as announcers broadcast results from shows over the loudspeaker.

At each show, Spot was a perfect performer. He stood tall for the judge, and followed without fail on his lead. I was very proud of him. This was my first important lesson in commitment to my goals.

It is also my first, most vivid memory of loss.

At the end of the week, it was time for the final event. As I stood in line with Spot, staring out into the crowd assembled in the show hall and listening to the indecipherable chant of the announcer, it finally hit me. For the first time since I began this project, I grasped the reality of this single event that I had worked so hard to accomplish. Since I had spent my entire life on a farm, I should have understood, but somehow I did not. It was with great sadness that I led Spot into the ring. Front and center, the audience began to bid on my lamb. Quickly, the auctioneer announced the final word: sold.

With that, I began to cry.

I ran to my mom, holding tightly onto my lamb, and I cried. I explained to her that I could not sell him. He had trusted me. I could not let him down.

I am sure my mother had not expected this reaction. However, she explained patiently to me that this was a necessary part of the process. She could not, however, reassure me that Spot would be OK. Because we both knew too well that he was going to market. I was inconsolable.

With comfort and reassurance, my mom explained that female lambs were breeders and would not go to market. From that point forward, I chose female lambs for my projects. Each year at auction time, I entered the ring with the assurance that my lamb would serve an important purpose on someone else’s farm for many years to come.

As an adult, I understand that the female lambs most likely did not fare any better than Spot, but as a child, I believed it.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.