This time of year I don’t go out much – kind of a buzzkill for a supposed travel blog. I have never really been interested in spending time outside in winter, at least as an adult. I’m not into winter sports at all, and my asthma is aggravated by cold air, so even a walk on a sunny day doesn’t hold a lot of allure for me. I am in a state of semi-hibernation for 8 to 12 weeks until my senses detect the first warming of the winds in spring.
As a child I don’t remember ever being cold. But then I was wearing a skidoo suit, which every child under the age of 13 wore from November to March. This was before tween fashion and Baby Gap. Back then children were dressed for utility, and since we spent all day walking, playing, rolling and falling in snow, we all had ski-doo suits. Now only people actually driving a ski-doo wear them – I assume. I actually haven’t seen anyone on a ski-doo in over 20 years. That’s what happens when you move to the city.
This time of year I think about my childhood a lot, brought on by a mixture of the usual bummed out feeling one gets when the holiday season is over, and the contemplation that another 12 months of god knows what stretches before me. My birthday, my dad’s birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary all take place during the last week of January, so it bring a lot of reminiscing. After the holidays nothing much happens around here until the sap starts to run in spring, and the cold, dark days create a perfect atmosphere for brooding. It’s at this time of year I always feel an overwhelming urge to go home.
I grew up in Midland, Ontario, population 10,000, a little town carved out of the Canadian forest a hundred years earlier when a Georgian Bay location, grain shipping and the railroad made it an attractive spot for early settlers. When the first subdivision was built in 1970, it was simply one long street cut through this bush, so all houses on both sides backed onto the woods. My parents bought one of the first houses on this street. They sold it a few years later and bought a bigger one up the street, but it never really grew on them and they eventually sold it and bought a nicer house with a pool right across the street.
No sidewalks or city parks where I grew up. We walked to school down a woodland path, with squirrels, grasshoppers and rabbits bounding out of our way every morning. The trees eventually gave way to a large meadow that boasted three acres of buttercups, wild berry bushes, and what we called “wheat grass” swaying in the breeze. My friends and I would make nests in the long grass and pretend we were birds. We took picnic lunches with us and stayed all day, invisible to anyone walking by on the path. There was an old stone foundation, the early settlement house once attached to it long gone, where teenagers would go to smoke and smash beer bottles – at least, this was our surmise. We never actually saw anyone, but the bottom of the ruin was littered with butts, broken glass, and for some reason, spent shotgun shells – we did occasionally hear the faint roar of a gun during hunting season. If you bypassed the meadow and continued down the path you would reach a swamp, where we spent hours catching tadpoles.
So many memories of my childhood took place in that bush. As the last generation of children still allowed to play unsupervised, we were outside morning, noon and night, only going home to eat and sleep. We built tree houses at a height and of a structural integrity that would give today’s parents heart failure and probably earn them a visit from Children’s Services. We spent hours wading in the swamp with nets, catching small fish, frogs and tadpoles, leaving our shoes on the shore with no thought of contracting possible injury or illness. We picked wild apples off the trees and buckets of wild raspberries and blackberries, no pesticides to worry about. The ghostly tang of those berries is still on my tongue, forever spoiling any chance of enjoying the bland berries sold at today’s supermarkets. We even had a Kissing Tree, a huge sprawling maple with branches that bent to the ground, perfect for climbing. Courting couples for years had carved their initials in that tree. My boyfriend climbed so high to carve our initials that the branch he was standing on broke and he fell 10 feet before becoming caught by the lower branches.
No rules, no supervision, a glorious freedom to explore and learn that today’s children rarely experience. There was the occasional mischief of course. One day we decided it would be great fun to hide behind an embankment and throw acorns at passing cars – until one stopped and the driver got out, sending us running into the swamp in a blind panic to hide. My friend Sharon got stuck in the mud and lost her shoes – I never found out how she explained that one to her mother. Another day one of the boys found an old jean jacket and decided to see if it would burn. Well it did – spectacularly. He picked it up and ran down the path with it, intending to throw it into the swamp. However the flames falling off the jacket ignited the leaves that had been on the ground drying for decades. The resultant bush fire brought the fire department, which doused the small flames and marched said boy off to his father. We didn’t see him again for two weeks.
Once we started Grade 9, we walked up our street to the high school, no more woodland path. The picnics and swamp expeditions ended, replaced by purposeful loitering and a lot of flirting under the street lamp on my corner, where we would sit literally for hours until our mothers called us home. The Kissing Tree was forgotten – real kisses now, from that same boy who, after twenty years apart, is now my husband. He swears he had no idea jean jackets were that flammable.
We have a collective passel of five children, ages 11 to 19. None of them have ever seen a swamp, or climbed a tree. They couldn’t build a box, let alone a tree fort. We both feel they have missed out on something important, a connection to nature and life experience they never had a chance to explore. They get a small taste of it on family vacations to Muskoka, but it’s a drive-by experience only.
Soon they will spread their wings and leave the nest and we are thinking about what we will do with ourselves once they’re gone. We would like to leave the city and live in the country again, or another small town. Someplace that reminds us of the home that now exists only in our memories. The woods are gone, the path paved over. Houses stand as headstones on the graveyard of our meadow, long ago buried by an expansion to the original subdivision. Some unknown plant assassin even cut down The Kissing Tree.
It is said that as one nears the end of their life, the urge to return home grows strong. We are not quite 50 but already feeling the pull. But what do you do if home is no longer there?
You brood, wistfully. And wait for spring.