Leaving Behind The Childhood Garden, Moving On To The Harsher World

The house we grow up in is a special place, one full of memory. It becomes our house of self, one we dream of later in life when things are rocky, when we are sick or sad, as if to walk within its walls again would bring relief.

Our friends from the neighborhood never leave us somehow; we remember their names for decades, for a lifetime, though we may never speak to them or see them again. And the pets who loved us and whom we loved, well, they remain with us always. Childhood is its own country.

I grew up on Ivy Street in a pretty house no longer there, in an America no longer there. That house was long ago taken down board by board to be replaced with a parking lot and then, later, grass covered the wound altogether. It’s been a lifetime since then.

Fuschia peonies lined our walk at the Dutch Colonial on Ivy Street, dipping their heavy heads towards the ground when fully bloomed. Three fruit trees blessed our yard, two on the side — one pear, one plum — and a cherry with its rough dark bark, with its white blossoms in spring, in the back right off my bedroom porch. I looked at it every night before going to bed and climbed it all the time from the age of five to nine, often hanging upside down from a low branch, overlooking my world from a unique perspective.

When I was five or six, my parents gave me a white rabbit named Snooks who lived outside in a fancy hutch that looked like a house, built by my handy grandfather Ben Johnson. He painted the roof black and the shutters green; he added a red door too. Snooks had a fenced yard and a fine house all to himself.

He grew to be enormous, sleek and confident. Rabbits aren’t the friendliest pets, but they have their own charm, and most of all their fur is such a pleasure to pet. Snooks liked sliced carrots and vegetable snacks, which he often got from me and from my father. Snooks had his own special hard pellet rabbit food too. I had wanted a dog or at least a cat and got a rabbit instead, so probably Snooks was kind of second best in my child’s heart. Nonetheless, I loved him, and he was a fine fellow, full of antics and leaps, a sense of humor, as well as an annoyed thump from a back foot now and then.

One day I was hanging upside down on my cherry branch — a Sunday morning in my ninth year. It must have been summer. The grass below me was plush. I was swinging by my knees, nonchalant, utterly thoughtless as children are sometimes. In one glance as I swung, I spied him across the white picket fence that ran along our back yard, bright white against the grass, lying dead on his side. A garish red blotch covered his head. My father was reading the Sunday paper when I ran inside to tell my parents. He stood, grim-mouthed and stiff; he folded the paper with great care and laid it down. My mother took my hand and led me into the kitchen. The green tiles were shiny and hard. She sat quietly with me.

Now as I think of it, I imagine the neighbor — a large man with glasses, ever unsmiling, never speaking, who planted vegetables not flowers in his back garden. We lived next to him for five years.

I imagine what kind of man he was to shoot a pet rabbit and leave it to lie in the sun, knowing a child would see it, find it there, and never forget. I see him shooting and then turning his back, walking into his house thick with rage.

Later, my dad stepped back across the picket fence’ carrying the dead rabbit in his arms. He laid it by the garage while he dug a hole beneath my tree. I could see the sun glinting off his shovel as he dug. He did not turn to look at me. He kept his head down to task. After he completed it, he came into the kitchen where we sat — mom, dad and I, at the table and did not eat the breakfast my mother had prepared. The scrambled eggs, the toast, the bacon, the orange juice, sat on the table. I recall a great silence. We were hushed by the unexpected meanness of the world.

Thereafter I could no longer swing from that branch upside down, for the world was askew. In the spring, after the long white medicine of snow, after the white fold of winter, the cherry tree’s blooms mercied the ground with a sheet of scent. And it helped. Some. We moved that year to Ohio, where I brought with me a new wariness, a different slope to my shoulders. There was no returning after that to the mercy of childhood’s safe borders. I learned to navigate a harder country. And I return to it now only in kind dreams.

So it is all children move on to the harsher world of adulthood, each in her own way. But we are still, sometimes, surprised by meanness and hate, violence and rage. I feel that way about America on this morning in August.


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