In a beautiful recent blog post, which I strongly encourage you to read, my mom reminisces about the years we spent living in the small farming community she grew up in. In it, she says, “Those really were the best years of my life. I wonder how the kids remember them?” And I want to answer that question.
At the time, it was a very difficult transition for me. We moved at the end of my third-grade year, and I left a school where I was popular and successful, and moved to one where I was bullied and ostracized, just for being me. Six years in that school system, and I was still the “new girl” when I left. I fell afoul of the mean girls a year ahead of me, and they tormented me mercilessly. For a long time, the move ‘back home’ was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
There’s no denying, though, that experience did a lot to shape the person I became. It freed me from worrying about what other people think of me; it taught me to be who I am, that it isn’t worthwhile to change myself to please others. The teasing was aimed at forcing me to conform, and it backfired: it taught me to mistrust and avoid the herd. And I learned that my mom’s support and sympathy is unflagging, and that having just one person on your side can be enough.
I could probably write several posts on my experiences of school bullying, but that’s not this post, because now, that’s not what I think about when I remember our years living in rural Iowa. Now, I remember hot, dusty summer days when we’d go to the lake or a nearby pond to cool off. I remember the winter the gravel road by our house snowed shut, and we went sledding in the road, with no danger of cars coming through. I remember the little rill that ran through the field behind the Little House–the sparse woods that grew along it were Middle Earth, and Preston and I dressed as much like medieval adventurers as we could manage, and played all day in them, hunting Orcs and treasure, hiding out from evil wizards.
I remember how the air smelled on early summer mornings, before the heat of the day set in. I remember the sound of the wind in the pines at Grandma’s house. I remember building forts in the enormous hay loft at Tuck Corner and having ‘battles’ between them. I remember the wild strawberries that grew along the fence line there, and Mom and Doug trying to make strawberry wine from them. I remember my reading tree, also at that house, where I would take a book and maybe an apple, climb up to a comfortable bough, and sit and read for hours.
I remember sitting on the stoop at Grandma’s house, shelling peas or snapping beans or husking corn–there was always gardening work to be done in the summertime. I remember canning days, although I mostly remember being sent out of the room when the pressure cooker was on, “just in case.” I remember hanging wash out on the clothesline, getting soaked from wrestling the heavy, wet clothes, and bringing it in later, all stiff and fresh. I remember taking turns sitting on the bucket of the ice cream churn to keep it steady while one uncle or the other turned the crank; I remember how that fresh ice cream tasted when it came out of the churn, always a little soft because no-one could wait as long as it takes to churn ice cream. We churned butter, too, and I remember being excited to try it–I’d been reading the Little House on the Prairie books. Grandma let me try turning the crank, and after three or four goes, I gave it back–it was much harder than it looked!
Looking back on it now, I realize we were basically free-range children. I remember long days out adventuring, and as long as everyone came back in one piece, that was good enough. It wasn’t that we were unsupervised–it was that we were trusted to look after ourselves. Living in the country seemed so boring at the time, but now I see it forced us to make our own fun. Character-building, perhaps; imagination-building, certainly.
I am grateful now for the years spent living close to Grandma, all the time I got to spend with her, the things I learned from her–which are a bare fraction of all she had to teach, but there’s no telling a kid what she’ll value and wish she’d paid attention to when she’s grown.
For years, I resented the move back to Corning; I thought it had ruined my life. As I’ve aged, and my sense of the important things in life has changed, I’ve realized there were precious gifts in the experience, that made it worth withstanding the unhappier elements. I”m not sure I’ve ever told my mom that–and I wanted to make sure I did.