I want to memorize this patch of 30 acres that has been ours for nearly a quarter of a century. My family moved here when I was 8, and I was thrilled. Midwest plains and a tiny town promised branches to climb, creeks to splash in and real horses to ride. Now, some years later, I sit listening to wind chimes composing melodies at the hands of the Midwest wind. I am looking at the hills of more than land: I am looking at the map of my soul.
I can see across the way the ghost of my child-self running across the fields with a dog or two in close pursuit. I see that ghost of my childhood and ask the question we tend to ask so much: how did I get here?
As I sit here, I am 21; I’ve returned home for a time of soul searching, and my parents have offered me sanctuary and love – an attitude I attribute to what living in the country harvests. And now I am flying south from this country living to begin again; I am flying far enough that I might never look back at the past that did so much to shape me and change me. I would not change the person I’ve become, or my impending motherhood – growing up in the country has taught me that change is a thing of seasons, and each season has a beauty unique to its own time.
The tree beside the pond droops in the early warmth of May. I always meant to hang a rope from her branches and swing across the muddy waters of the pond. It’s just as well I didn’t; the pond is really only an ambitious puddle. From my chair on the screened deck, I see my mother’s apple tree in the rock garden that we planted together: I carelessly arranged rocks while my mother patiently trailed behind, fixing the haphazard ring circling the mums, pansies, roses and apple tree.
In the south field, saplings continue to grow; but I remember when that field gave birth to hay, not trees. I remember December sleigh rides fashioned from a plastic purple sled, pulled by a belligerent Shetland pony. “Over the manure we go,” I sang, thinking myself witty. At 10, in those awkward years, one could say that wit was my only asset. I clearly remember that blistering cold of Christmas 1995 – my father ran across the thick snow, his cherry-red face and wind-chapped lips exposed to the sharp winds. He ran as fast as he could, and I yelled, “Faster, Daddy, faster,” as he dragged along Lucky the pony. I didn’t know then that these small moments would come to define me.
One summer I camped 100 feet from the house, thinking myself a rustic pioneer in my own right.
“What are you going to eat if you don’t come in the house?” my mother asked when I announced that I would be “living” in the tent across the broad backyard.
“I’ve got food packed in the tent,” I told her proudly. How clever I was, in my large, round glasses and my long, brown braid – the picture of tomboy and nerd, awkwardly patched together. “I’ve got crackers and juice and yogurt and …”
“How are you going to keep juice and yogurt cold? It’s 85 degrees.”
“I just ate some yogurt. It was warm, but I like it that way.”
“How long was that yogurt out there?” My mother asked. I’m sure she was thinking, the tent has been up two days now – approximately 30 hours … wonder what spoiled yogurt could do to an 8-year-old?
I proudly said, “I put it there when Daddy set the tent up.”
These memories flit through my mind like the fireflies I caught in old jars – a memory in every direction that I look from the screened deck. Fingers of twigs scratch the horizon overhanging the shallow forest thick with memories. If I could paint, I would find that perfect shade of green to lightly dust the portrait of the rock that became my chair. That rock sits at the edge of an abandoned cemetery at the boundary of our property. I don’t know the name of the leafy vine that carpets that cemetery, but I once imagined ghosts of pioneers treading across it. Now, I don’t climb through the briars and rusty fences to sit there. But still I see the fading names on the graves. Mostly Cooks: William, Anna, the unnamed grave of an infant Cook. Few made it to 50. Only one lived past 60. The maps of their lives remain – in part because I traced the tops of their stony gravesites.
I never realized I would leave this behind. But now I am moving to suburbia, and my child may never know fields and woodlands, ponds perfect for catching frogs and tadpoles. My child will grow up in parks and city schools, but she will not be a wilting child. I will instill in my child the spirit of country folk. I will tell stories of horseback rides at midnight, sneaking to the barn to read in the hay. I will tell stories about chasing the creek as far as I could run (I never found the end). I will say I never knew that the country soul remains no matter how we try to run. I intend to return, someday, but for now, I cherish memories. If I could bottle the Midwestern sky, I would present it to my little one saying, “This is the map of my soul.”
Angela Baker finds that the transplant from country to the suburbia of Clermont, Florida, leaves plenty of time to read, write and knit obsessively.