Playing outdoors

When my parents had their house built, they asked the builders to be careful not to hurt the two old juniper trees in the front yard. When construction was finished, the trees beautifully framed the house as seen from the street. I hope that the crew that demolished the house this year was careful to leave the trees there. It’s odd, though, to think that those trees could outlive the entire history of the house.

Juniper trees drop clusters of short, sharp needles, so the front lawn was not a place to walk with bare feet. The grass in the back yard was soft and hazard free, perfect for bare feet, but when a family member forgot that the front lawn was different, he or she received a rude reminder. The needles didn’t shake out, either–one had to sit down and pull them out of one’s feet.

My parents raised an oak tree from an acorn in front of the house, closer to the street. Nearer the house, they planted a spruce tree. In December, my father would string Christmas lights on the spruce tree. Some years I would make ornaments for the tree from the Styrofoam trays that came under meat from the grocery store. I would trace around my mother’s cookie cutters, cut the ornaments from the Styrofoam, and color them with crayons. My mother helped me to string yarn through each ornament so I could hang it on the tree. I remember December afternoons when I sat at the dining room table to trace and cut and color while she made Christmas cookies or other holiday treats in the kitchen, accompanied by Christmas songs on the record player. I think the making of outdoor ornaments was a ruse to keep me quiet while she did her baking.

The two junipers, the oak, and the spruce made a perfect baseball diamond for my summers. I had a plastic ball and a plastic bat. I would toss the ball in the air, swing the bat, and run the bases. The trees represented not only bases, but also fielders. Later, when I was bigger and stronger, the storm drain became first base and the second juniper became third base, while the oak tree switched from first baseman to pitcher. Of course all of right field was now across the street, so I learned to pull the ball to left field. Any ball that landed on my grandparents’ property was a home run.

Mowing the grass and raking the leaves became my chore at my parents’ home and at my grandparents’ home. I liked mowing for my grandparents better because they let me use their mower, which had an electric starter instead of a rope to pull. My parents did not burn autumn leaves, nor did they bag them to be taken to the landfill. They used the leaves as mulch in their flowerbeds and strawberry patch. Raking, then, meant creating leaf piles, loading them into a wheelbarrow, taking them behind the house, and dumping them where they belonged for the winter.

Aside from baseball, I did not play much in the front yard. In addition to having softer grass, the back yard was more sheltered. My father built a sandbox for me, bringing in new sand every spring. He also erected a metal swing set. Some years he would install a wading pool for the summer. My family had a croquet set; some days I would set up a course and play all four colors on my own.

On laundry day, my mother liked to dry clothes and bedsheets in the back yard when the weather permitted. At first we had a standard clothes line strung between two poles. Later, my father bought a clothes line that attached to the side of the garage. It retracted into a case, and the pole for the opposite end could be pulled out of its hole and put in the garage. My mother often sent me outside on laundry day to set up the clothesline while she began the first load of washing.

A large church two blocks away provided a soundtrack for my summers outdoors. The church had a three-bell carillon which I can still hear in my imagination. Because they rang at different speeds, they created a tune which went something like this: ding, dang, dong, ding-dang, dong-ding, ding-dong (repeats).  The “dong” was the tonic (or “do”), the “dang” was the third (or “mi”), and the ding was the fifth (or “sol”).

I learned to love some summer insects, such as cicadas that sang in the trees, and fireflies that entertained during summer evenings. I did not, however, like wasps and bees. In my childhood, I was stung about once per summer. Although the reaction was mild–pain and swelling the day of the sting, itching for two or three days afterward–I had a fear of stinging insects that bordered on phobia. If I could see a wasp or a bee, or if I could hear an insect buzzing, I was very much afraid.

Aside from that, most of my childhood memories are pleasant. I loved to ride my bicycle around the neighborhood, or swing on the swing set, or create new worlds in the sandbox (often using twigs and pine cones to create forests, or using toy trucks to build roads and excavate hills). In the winters I built snowmen and snow forts. On very cold winter days, I put on all my winter clothing–knit stocking cap, hooded coat, scarf, knit mittens, and boots–and explored the yard as if I were an astronaut on the moon. Playing outdoors allowed me to exercise imagination and creativity, as well as benefiting from fresh air and sunshine. J.

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