One of my earliest memories is the billow of a red and white tablecloth drifting slowly to the ground under the broad sheltering leaves of a maple tree. I had been riding on the fender of my uncle’s tractor, my young fingers grasping its rounded lip in hot dusty compliance. I had listened intently to the terrible things that befell children who could not hang on tight as the tractor lurched forward. I was determined not to be one of the maimed or injured. I held on with aching hands as everyone else gathered hay bales, tossing them high and hard to my cousin, who stacked them on the long flat wagon, his black hair sprouting from a white sailor cap, while pieces of hay stuck to his bare chest and oil-stained jeans.
My aunt crossed the fields in her worn cotton dress and long apron, high temperatures slowing her gait as she forged through noon day sun. Small drops of moisture escaped from the strands of gray that curled near her ears and forehead. She wiped at them like pesky mosquitoes. It was the arrival of the picnic basket to the welcome shelter of the tree, and the wave of that red and white tablecloth floated slowly from air to earth that signaled an end to work.
Lunch on the farm tasted different, because the food was laced with sweat, hard work, long hours and welcome release. The men moved bone-tired from the fields or slid from the wagon, eager to yield to the pull of gravity. They pushed back their caps, wiped their brows with bold red handkerchiefs, and dropped like heavy weights under the tree. Lunch meant tall pitchers of iced tea or lemonade poured over fiery throats, ham and cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, and pies made from whatever berry was in season. Each ingredient was colorful and dense, so rich or sweet, it seemed to explode with each bite. The men relaxed, ate and told stories, their easy laughter filled the air.
Being outside made life real and significant. I was significant too, but not because of anything I learned or had become. I was important simply because I existed and belonged. I was made real in the broad honest smiles of the men, and the way my uncle grasped the wheel with the two fingers that remained on his leathery right hand. I was made real in the flour and sticky sugar that clung to the corners of my aunt’s apron. I was the chatter box on the fender who was my uncle’s ‘niece little nice.’ In that place, I was embraced and included for all that I was, and all I was not.
I belonged to the farm. I belonged to the scent of fresh cut fields, the cows in the mud, acres of corn and sun-ripened berries along dusty roads. I belonged to all of it and it belonged to me. Going inside hid me from that. Buildings kept me safe and sheltered, but separate. In open space, I knew myself through and through. I filled my lungs with the definition of life. I felt real and liberated.
All my finest memories are out of doors; the memories I am eager to forget live behind darkened walls and in caged rooms.
written July 19, 2008