By Susan Wider
The fuss and the commotion are all wrong. Mother’s voice rises in pitch but I don’t see the problem. I hear her quick intake of breath, a sound that usually scares me, like she’s thinking about choking. It’s one way she makes people pay attention to her. Along with the headaches, crying jags, and long naps.
“Sweetie, don’t move,” she tells me. I still have no idea what the issue is. She’s already across the tiny living room and out the front door, yelling for our neighbor, Mr. Jenkins. I stand up from the floor where I’ve been playing with Sweet Sue, pretending and inventing and imagining just as fast as my brain can fly. Sweet Sue isn’t a baby doll; I don’t like those. Sweet Sue is for big girls like me. Dolls are alter egos for me, a way to live stories I can’t have. I place her lovingly on the couch, careful not to crush the beautiful brown curls and the pale blue dress, and I walk to the screen door. Mother is back in view, crossing our front lawn with Mr. Jenkins. She whips open the door, sees me, and does the breath thing again.
“I thought I told you not to move.”
I’m five. It’s hard to stay still.
She tugs me out the front door onto the porch where Mr. Jenkins is propping open the screen door. We never do that. It lets the flies in. Now he’ll be in trouble, too.
“Is there a broom?” he asks Mother, and she flits to the kitchen to find one.
I watch from the far edge of the porch as Mr. Jenkins uses our perfect yellow broom to swat at something above his head, just inside the front door. I can tell he’s trying to direct whatever it is, to guide it.
“Big bumblebee,” he says.
“Just get it out,” says Mother. “Please.”
I can’t wait to see the bee. When Mr. Jenkins finally wrangles it out of the living room and through the front door, I’m delighted. It’s big. It’s furry. And it’s buzzy. I want to hold it, examine it, feel its fuzzy body, and see if it vibrates in my hand. It buzzes around the door frame trying to get back in the house.
Please don’t hurt it.
He doesn’t. Once the bee is clear of the door, Mr. Jenkins closes it. It’s just me and the bee on the porch now, with Mother safe inside. The bee flies in a quick circle above me and then buzzes away. I want to keep it in view forever.
“Get back in this house now, young lady.”
My favorite parts of the books Mother and Dad read to me when I was in elementary school are the descriptions of attics, basements, and tree houses. These are mysterious places with smells I can’t imagine, shadows that obscure things, and endless hidden treasures. Playtime would be complete with an attic to explore. There would be dusty suitcases full of dress-up clothes; stacks of old books with crumbly pages; an old violin with a broken string; a mysterious dark wooden trunk, hopelessly locked and sad. A basement would offer up places to hide, adorable storybook mice, perhaps an old bike or a sled, with red paint flaking away. And the treehouse. That would be for reading, and drawing, and sitting so still and quiet that the birds would fly right in. There would even be squirrels. But no. Attics are few in the New Mexico heat; houses are built on concrete slabs; and rare are the trees that can accommodate a treehouse.
Instead, there is the cover for our house’s crawl space.
It’s in the backyard, far from the bumblebee porch. I have no idea what a crawl space is used for. It’s just there. Dad removes the cover and disappears down there from time to time at Mother’s bidding. I can climb on top with difficulty, in part because I’m not tall yet, and in part because the nailed-on red covering is sandpaper scratchy. Scrambling up there feels like an accomplishment, like climbing into my fantasy treehouse or braving the slippery stairs to my imaginary basement or the steep ones to my pretend attic. And it’s hot on the crawl space cover, often too hot to sit on with my skinny legs in threadbare shorts. The backyard isn’t landscaped so when I’m up here there isn’t much to see.
Or much time to sit and dream.
“Honey, what are you doing up there? You’ll be burned to a crisp. Please go back inside.”
It’s a production. We’re in the new house now, the bigger house, and I have a sister. I am still without attic, basement, or treehouse. It’s a production because every time we are allowed outside to play there are so many preparations to make first. Today I have been instructed to wear my new yellow gingham sundress, a gift from my Aunt Ann who is visiting from Ohio. My sister’s matching sundress is blue. This earns us the nicknames Buttercup and Bluebell. Fine, but I’ve never seen a live version of either flower. After rigorous hair-combing and face-washing we are cleared to go outside to play.
We both have new butterfly nets. They are toys but I don’t know this, nor do I care; I just want to catch things. The wooden handle is short and flimsy and the small green net is poorly stitched, too stiff, and will restrict the movement of larger butterflies, but I don’t know this either. What I do know is that I feel a kind of welcome freedom to run, roam, search, and trap. The first butterfly in my net is small and orange. It is surprisingly easy to catch. I reach my hand inside and gently hold the butterfly by its closed wings. I bring it up to my face and study its features, its delicate legs and antennae, its elongated body. I place it on my finger and can barely feel the tiny legs—just small tickles. I let go. It opens its wings, briefly poses there on my finger, then flutters away. The satisfaction of holding this creature and seeing it up close almost makes up for never having held my bumblebee.
Then I notice my fingers. The tips that touched the butterfly are coated with orange dust. Butterfly dust. Did I hurt it? Are its wings damaged? There’s no way to know, and no one to ask because the announcement has come that outdoor time is over.
“Girls, come in out of the sun. Please.”
The trees in the backyard of our new house are not strong enough to climb. We do have a jungle gym, but I’ve figured that out already and it offers no new surprises. The slide is short, not very steep, and boring, even in reverse. The swing is only fun if you stand on it, and that’s not allowed. The bar is okay, but swinging from it using only my knees gets me in trouble too. Detaching the swings altogether and using the jungle gym’s main frame as a high bar is an even worse offense. Not allowed. Not allowed.
So I decide to climb the cement block wall around the yard and walk the length of it. There are three ways up: the turquoise wooden gate by the utility room; or its twin at the other end of the house; or the tiered wall that separates our front yard from the neighbors’. I choose the utility room gate. It’s easy to climb, and making it to the top of the wall is thrilling. I stand up, which is even more thrilling.
Our backyard is not square. There are five segments to the wall in order to enclose the space and connect it to the house, making a sort of wonky hexagon. I turn the first corner and can see into the neighbors’ backyard. They have two very little boys and their trucks are scattered all over, and they have a sandbox. I would love to jump down there, sit in that sandbox, and play with that dump truck.
When I get to the next corner there is an electric pole with warning signs all over it that I can mostly read. There’s a transformer higher up that Mother says is dangerous so I hurry past, and encounter my first real obstacle. The plants here—I’m only eight, I can’t name them—are growing up from our yard and also up from the yard behind ours, which I can’t see for the vegetation. It’s a tangle of branches with very little exposed wall to step on. I pick my way through, slowly and carefully. These are jungle vines. There could be a tiger down below or I might meet a rare tropical snake.
I make it to the part of the wall that borders the concrete patio Dad made, and the brick fireplace he built. I’ve never looked down into the yard on the other side of that wall either. When I do, my stomach hops. That yard is much lower than ours which means I’m on a much higher wall now. Scared is not an option on this adventure so I keep going until I’m on the fourth segment of the wall which has a yard that is also level with ours. One more corner to turn, a tiny stretch of wall to walk, and I’ll be at the second turquoise gate, my dismount. Tiny problem. Between here and there is a thicket of branches where front yard and backyard rose bushes meet and intertwine. There’s no getting through. I try and the thorns are merciless, stinging and scraping my bare feet and lower legs. I’ll have to retrace my steps back to the first gate, or maybe only as far as the outdoor fireplace, which I might be able to climb down. That sounds fun. Except that I hear the screen door to the utility room creak open and bang shut. Mother appears around the side of the house.
“What on earth are you doing? You get down from there this minute.”
I obey and I jump. She shrieks. I’m fine.
“What were you thinking? You could have killed yourself. Inside. Now.”
Okay, but I loved every inch of that.
One of the largest branches of the cottonwood tree out back has come down in a wind storm. It’s one of those branches that isn’t strong enough to support climbing or a treehouse, but once on the ground, it’s perfect. It’s still slightly attached to the tree by a loose strip of bark. My sister and I move in. It’s cool in there and shady. I crawl around between the main branch and the smaller branches and I decide this is a branch house. We have a living area, a kitchen, and bedrooms—separate, since we have to share one in our real house. I scavenge toys from indoors and set us up with dishes, beach towels for blankets, and dolls, books, and drawing materials for company.
The next morning our house is drying out quickly but I persuade Dad to leave it there for another day, and then another. We are not a family that goes camping. We rarely go on picnics in the nearby mountains or woods. I want this branch house to last forever, but I have to give up when the leaves begin to curl and fall off. Watching Dad saw up my refuge hurts.
By the time I have graduated from Sweet Sue to Barbie, I’m ten and probably already too old for dolls. But my sister is five years younger and it’s my job as Big Sister to play with her. I dress Barbie in the functional clothes that Gramma made her. I love Barbie’s fashion outfits mostly for the accessories: the tiny golden keys, the chic sunglasses, her own mini Barbie doll. But she can hardly go wading in the stream I have made for her if she’s wearing that cocktail dress. Gramma made her some baggy red shorts that reach to her knees, and a roomy white tee shirt. Barbie goes barefoot because that’s another wonderful idea that Mother does not allow, neither indoors nor out.
Gramma is watering the flowers that she planted along the border of the fireplace patio. She visits us every summer from Massachusetts and does her best to green the place up. She lets the hose run at one end of the flower bed and the water runs downhill through her plantings. I use a fist-sized rock and a strong stick to carve a meandering stream for Barbie between the plants. There are places where she can jump across and others that are wider where I place stones for her to walk across. Barbie also loves wading, and I know that I would, too.
“What are you girls doing now?” says Mother. “Stop it, or you’ll ruin your Grandmother’s flowers.”
I’m headed for summer music camp, six weeks in the mountains of Colorado near Estes Park, and more importantly, in sight of Long’s Peak. I’m in high school, as responsible and level-headed as ever, and Mother is terrified, but I’ve won my spot through an audition and I can’t wait to be there.
“Maybe this will get those ideas about going away to college out of your head once and for all,” she says to me as I prepare to board the plane from Albuquerque to Denver.
I’m thrilled about the music opportunities at this camp but once I arrive I’m even more excited about the log cabins we bunk in, the walk through the woods to meals, rehearsals and lessons, and the green that is everywhere.
We are encouraged to practice in our cabins or to sign up for practice rooms. I can’t tolerate either. Every morning after breakfast, I take my music stand, sheet music, and violin, in its case, and head for my favorite meadow. No one else goes there to practice. It’s just me, the bees, and the wild flowers. It’s annoying that I have to hike back for lunch. They should give us sack lunches so that we can be out there all day. They should let us sleep outside at night. I sign up for every hike that is offered on the weekends. The camp nurse loses count of my mosquito bites somewhere around thirty. I don’t care. Please just let me back outdoors. I memorize my favorite view of Long’s Peak so that I can summon it at will with my eyes closed. I paint it when I am back home. I still have the tiny little watercolor picture, a testament to where my heart already wanted to be.
Somehow I wind up living with my ailing and aging parents when I’m in my forties. Somehow I quit a reasonable job in France teaching English and working as a translator for the French Chamber of Commerce. Somehow I dump my French boyfriend. Worse, I break my promise to the Eiffel Tower and I leave the country. Within six months, I’m climbing the corporate ladder in the United States, believing that this is my destiny. Idiot. What happened to climbing gates or mountains? What about streams and cabins in the woods? Traded for responsibility, accountability, and a fat salary.
I ask Dad to help me hang a simple hammock between two large pines in a secluded corner of the backyard at their even newer house. When I’m not in a business suit, I’m in the hammock with a pile of books. This is the only place that helps right now.
I find a faded color photograph dated August 1960. That means I’m not quite six. Dad probably took the picture. In it, I’m staring directly at the camera. It looks like I want to smile but can’t quite. The water in the stream is up above my ankles. Up the slope behind me stands Gramma, dressed in church clothes and vigilant under the tall trees, somewhere in the mountains of New Mexico. Mother probably put Gramma in charge of protecting me from the dangerous outdoors. I cannot stop looking at my expression in the picture. There are fifty-some years in between that face and the one I see in the mirror every day. Why didn’t someone let that little girl continue to stand in streams, climb trees, and chase butterflies?
I learn about game trails on the first night of my camping life—as an already well-seasoned adult in my early fifties—at Glacier National Park. My husband Bill and I put up the tent with relative ease, even though I am a newbie camper. (He had wisely orchestrated a dry run in the driveway before we left home.) The ranger who stops by our tent site to collect the fee explains that we have selected a site bordered by a game trail. At dinner—baked beans and toasted stale pita bread—I notice a vinyl sign bolted to our campsite’s picnic table. It lists the recommended steps to maintain a “bear aware” camp site, things like disposing of trash, and keeping all food in vehicles. We’re sleeping next to a game trail with bears in the area, and I’ve never slept in a tent before. Will the bears smell my toothpaste or those grapefruit-scented face wipes?
I listen hard, all night. That way, I will hear the bear first, snuffling and panting around the campground, and will have plenty of time to wake Bill. I do eventually fall asleep, only to wake up to growling. Well, snoring really, from a nearby tent.
Dozens of tent nights have followed over the last ten years. I’ve climbed many mountains, hopped from rock to rock across many streams, and eaten many stale pitas. I never saw any animals using that game trail at Glacier, but now I have my very own game trails at home in northern New Mexico, created by backyard bunnies, pack rats, and whatever else plods across our land.
Would I appreciate the outdoors this much if I hadn’t been denied it or made to fear it? Especially when my little girl heart wanted it so badly.
Susan Wider's work has appeared in Orion, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and THE Magazine among others. She is currently working on several art-based and nature-based book projects, represented by Stimola Literary Studio. Susan lives in Santa Fe, NM with an assortment of hawks, coyotes, snakes, bobcats, and a husband.