The fragrance of my childhood lingers. By this, I do not mean waking up on a Saturday morning to the aroma of bacon. Our family didn’t do bacon, my mom being a pioneer of health food in the 1970’s. My siblings and I have memories of holding our noses while gagging down juiced beets and carrots, fresh-picked from Mom’s gardens. Our lunchboxes were carefully packed with home-cultured yogurt and alfalfa sprouts tucked with organic cheese into whole-grain pitas. A combination which I suppose actually did engage the senses. But these aren’t the memories I’m meaning.
My real childhood took place in the out-of-doors, in the loamy aura of woodland and farm.
In my memory it’s always summer. An irony, considering I grew up in southern Minnesota. A good six months of every year I’m sure we must have hunkered down with our wood-burning stove, doing indoor stuff. Honestly, I can hardly recall the particular tasks we found to fill the time. I suppose I read books. But it was outside the walls of our white-sided farmhouse, bare-legged and mosquito-bitten, where I lived the stories.
Our acreage was surrounded by a grove of trees (we called it the woods) and the trees were surrounded by bean fields. My next-youngest brother and little sister and I were often joined by cousins, who lived a quarter-mile up our country road. We were Grizzly Adams and Laura Ingalls Wilder, girls in hand-stitched bonnets, made by our mamas, boys wielding weapons made from anything sharp. The forts we constructed from fallen branches were still standing in our woods years later, when I returned one weekend from college, and saw for the first time how miniature they were. There’d been room to spare for a cluster of kids, hiding from panthers in the forest.
Wild raspberries grew along the edges of our bean fields. I say “our” but the harvest really belonged to an uncle. My dad worked as an auto-mechanic in town, and he’d come home each day at 4:30 sharp smelling of motor oil. My mom was a gardener; which is to say, she grew enough produce to feed a family of seven, year-round after the canning was done. Mom’s gardens (there were several) were massive. And we did not help her. Not as far as I remember. Mom spent endless hours of summer days on her knees and up to her elbows in compost-rich black dirt, while we kids played. We rode bikes and hiked fields and dug long-buried treasure from the very soil of our tree-lined playground. And there really was treasure. The man who owned the property before us collected nicknacks and assorted precious junk.
Mom drove a baby-blue VW bus with a big yellow smile wrapped around the spare tire. That vehicle was without a doubt the coolest thing our family ever owned. Groovy to use 70s vernacular, although I can’t recall ever using the word. To this day Mom practically tears up talking about how she wishes she’d hung onto it. Once a week during the summer months Mom would load that bus with small children and clip the garage sale section from the local newspaper and off we’d go for a day of thrifting. Mom has always had an eye for a bargain and she knows just which styles and sizes will work best for each member of her clan. My own five boys were raised with closets full of Grandma’s provision. While Mom sifted through piles of castoffs with an eye toward our practical needs, I’d scour those garages for books. Mom had a soft spot for old Dick and Jane readers and other assorted hardcover primers, and I knew if I found one she’d say yes to the nickel purchase.
Our family embarked on at least one road-trip vacation in that old VW. Back in the day Dad loved long-distance driving, and we’d skip school for cross-country travel at least once every winter. Eventually Dad would upgrade our little bus to a conversion van and then a small RV. (Cue Mom’s tears.) I’m sure my parents could answer in a heartbeat if asked when and where we did our tour in Baby Blue. But it must have been when Mom was expecting her fourth baby. A fact I remember based on a comment she made to my dad about how she hoped in heaven God would make the men bounce around pregnant in the back of a bus while assembling sandwiches for hungry children.
My childhood was garage sales and gardens, Dick and Jane readers and a baby-blue bus. Adventures in the big woods and books read in the shade of a weeping willow. The tang of berries, picked with permission from Mom’s endless tangle of strawberry plants. Raspberries gleaned freely from the bean field hedge. Cooling wind against sun-kissed shoulders. Farm dogs barking, and Mom’s CB radio calling us in for “dinner” at noon. And endless summer.