(Part Three) The Woods
Depending on what part of a large city you live in, the world can look pretty different. There is a division between the poor and rich neighborhoods. Life is either unfair and tipped towards the lucky few or beautiful in its entirety and all the possibilities it has to offer. School is something to look forward to or a black hole of disappointment and ridicule.
Since both my parents were tenured professors – my Mom taught Comparative Literature and my Dad taught Early American History – we did well. We lived in the West End near Beacon Hill. Our house was located at the end of the street, which afforded us a larger yard than most of our neighbors. Red oaks and sugar maples protected the back side of our home from the forceful winds and ice rain during the winter. During the summer, when the sun blazed high and the days were so humid the air was choked with moisture, we would sit in their shade, sipping iced lemonade and licking the peach juices from our fingers.
Most of my childhood friends were confined to that single neighborhood. We grew up privileged but aware of our good fortune, due to the fact that our parents didn’t try to shield us from the sadness of the world but impressed upon us a sense of duty, right, and ambition.
At night my father would pull me aside and have me select a book from his collection. Brushing off the dust he would bring to life old stories of great men and daring deeds.
“You can’t do great things in this world without knowing those who have come before you, son.”
No one was more wise than my father. Or, at least, that’s how I saw him. Isn’t that what every eight year old boy thinks of when he listens to his dad tell stories?
I looked at him in awe and took in every single utterance. My father was big. He stood high above most men around him, towering like the strong maples that surrounded our home. He was steadfast and humble. Usually so quiet that when he said something serious it bellowed and shook the house like the strong winds during winter. I loved my father.
“Tell me a story, dad.”
The worn burgundy cushions sunk as he would lower himself down and I could hear the groans of the warped wood. It was his favorite chair. Every night he would sit in that chair and read me stories and try to instill the type of qualities the great men in his books possessed – courage, strength, will power, truth, and respect. He was my idol. As a boy, I couldn’t think of a better man to call my hero.
“Always be honest Riley.”
“Never take advantage of those who are weaker than you.”
“In everything you do, try and be a good man.”
These were the life lessons I grew up with.
I was happy, content with my life and of the lives around me. Never wanting for food and affection, I would spend most of my time either up in our tree house with the neighborhood boys, playing pirate and camping out on warm nights with pocketed chocolate bars and cans of pop, or hidden behind the big curtain in our sitting room deep in thought.
As I got older the idle play of children and then the gossip-heavy chatter of teenagers rarely interested me. I spent most of my weekends alone, out in the city or at some local park, book in hand and mind wandering. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy a good game of ball or failed to notice the pretty girls that would congregate along the field – in fact I was keenly aware of them. But my mind wanted greater challenges. I knew exactly what to say and how to act to get their attention. If I wanted I could have my picked of the group. But the challenge wasn’t there and their mindless prattle bored me.
So I would escape from it all.
One of my favorite spots was a hollowed out tree about a mile deep into the woods behind our house. Old and worn from hundreds of years of rain and harsh winds, it had finally succumbed to years of abuse and shifting dirt. Releasing its tight hold of the earth it had fallen to the ground, hitting with a sound that echoed throughout the nearby woods. It must have been felt from far away, I thought as I curled into its broken bark. Such a magnificent tree couldn’t have fallen without a fight!
I would sit for hours and read or daydream. The rest of the world was far away from me and without its restrictions I cold be anything, be anyone I could possibly imagine. Some days I would forget the time and light would fade to darkness. The woods would turn pitch black. Tiny dots of light would bounce about and it took me awhile to finally realize they were the eyes of animals darting amongst the trees and brush. But I was never afraid.
When I did finally make my way back home my mom would give me a scolding, concern etched across your face; her brow furrowed with worry and dread something and happened to her sweet boy. My father would cuff the back of my head and send me straight up to bed without another word.
I should have felt guilty. I should have known that causing my parents to worry was one of the worst things a kid could do. But I didn’t. I missed the night and the comfort of being enveloped in the darkness. It felt familiar and safe. But back in the house, with the lights fully on, I felt exposed.
So I crawled into bed. Pulling the covers over the top of my head I shut my eyes tight and tried to remember where I left off in the woods.