by Laurel Grube
Running to catch Lightning Bugs with my husband and daughter, my heart is not in it, it’s in turmoil over Mama’s letter. Memories of my childhood flit freely like the bugs dancing by.
“Bedtime, let’s go in,” I call, while walking to the house, remembering.
Catching Lightning Bugs in the field at the edge of Grandmom’s woods, I hear Mama calling bedtime. The Spring Peepers on the pond chirp their chorus as I settle into clean sheets smelling of fresh mowed grass. The pillows cool crispness sooths my warm face, when I hear it. That familiar night sound through the open window, I sit up and listen.
“Whippoorwill, whippoorwill, whippoorwill.”
I drift off to sleep to their peaceful calls.
“Mommy,” my daughter yanks me back to the present. “Do I have to go in now? We’re having fun.”
Hugging her, I agree to more time, while reminiscing about Daddy.
The mud along Grandmom’s pond makes squishy sounds when we walk. Stretching my legs, I put my little girl feet in Daddy’s big footprints. I jump, cold gooey mud runs down my legs.
Daddy smiles and taking my attention from mud play, points to the Mallard Ducks, “Quack, Quack,” he says.
“Quack, Quack,” I repeat.
A warm spring day, taking a walk in the woods where Daddy and his father played as boys picking sweet Black Huckleberries. No berries yet, but I’m promised other wonders of the woods.
“Will I see the Whippoorwill Daddy?”
“No, they’re an evening bird.”
Dropping my head, I place my hand in his; we walk past the old salt air weathered barn, through the plowed field and into Grandmom’s woods. We pass the Sassafras and Oaks with their new leaves and come to dark evergreen bushes with tiny pink buds opening to white cup shaped flowers.
“I know these, Daddy, the Laurel!” I feel my mouth stretch wide, recognizing the bush I’m named after.
Daddy picks a blossom and sticks it in my ponytail. I touch the sticky flower, lick the sweetness from my fingers and run ahead, feeling secure among “my” bushes.
Low thumping I feel inside me, thunderous beating gets faster, louder, whoosh. I scream and run back to Daddy. He catches me, hugging me tight.
“Don’t be scared, that was just a Ruffed Grouse. I haven’t heard those birds here for years, used to hunt them with my Grandfather. ”
Holding my hand, we walk beyond the Laurel. Thorns grab at our cloths, twisted woody vines of old grapes hang from every tree, like the fortress surrounding Sleeping Beauty; they’re dense and hard to penetrate. Through the thicket and beyond the wall of briers I step into flowering beauty. Eyes and mouth wide open I gently tiptoe over the dark green carpet of shiny leaves and small flowers of five violet blue petals.
“My favorite place in the woods,” Daddy says while walking to where I stand in awe, “The Myrtle patch!”
“It’s so pretty,” I say, looking all around. “Daddy, look at this,” pointing to a swing shaped grape vine hanging from a blooming cherry tree. I quickly sit on it. “Push me Daddy. Again, higher.”
I join my husband on the back steps while our daughter sleeps.
“I was a shy, lonely, girl growing up. Grandmom’s woods became my playground, schoolroom, and sanctuary. I’m proud my ancestors protected them for future generations.”
“Then go visit Mom, see the woods for yourself. You know you need to face this.”
I stare into the moonless night, lost in memory.
It’s early June, Daddy and I walk among the Pitch Pines, their fallen long needles brown and soft under my bare feet.
“Be careful where you step,” Daddy says. “I’m hoping to show you the Pink Ladies’ Slipper, an orchid. They used to grow all over these woods. Now they are harder to find and protected by law from people digging them up.”
We search around the scattered undergrowth.
“There,” Daddy says.
I see two long oval leaves and a large pink flower hanging from the stem. I feel the paper-thin pink sack that forms the toe of the slipper and run my fingers over the ruffled brown edge at the opening with its dangling brown laces. We find a few more in that area.
Fascinated with nature, I join the school’s Ecology Club and patrol the wood for litter. Alone, sliding my feet along the sandy soil, feeling the coolness between my toes, I randomly pick Huckleberries and think about the Lenni Lenape Indians once living here in the Pine Barrens, enjoying the same berries. In the shade of oaks, I stop near the edge of a depression and remove someone’s potato chip bag, exposing the patch of Trailing Arbutus with their tiny wax like flowers that Daddy showed me one spring day. Smiling I walk on. A Box Turtle slowly crosses my path, I squat to greet my friend who enjoys our garden tomatoes as much as I do.
Thud. What? I listen. Thud, thud. Running toward the sound, following it deeper into the woods, I see him.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I shout. “This is private property.”
The boy runs off leaving the tree bleeding. I am shaking, surprised at my boldness. Over time, more trees feel the ax, pointlessly scared or cut down. Daddy is upset, he’s too sick to protect the woods, so I must try harder.
“I really did try,” I say to my husband while sipping tea he brought me.
My senior assignment nags at me to write about conservation, so I go to the perfect place where flowers inspire thoughts and dreams, the Myrtle patch. I stop, my heart falls into my stomach. There, beyond the thorns and twisted vines are deep wide holes marring our treasured place. My breathing holds still, my insides meld together, my soul feels violated. Sitting on the old vine, the swing of my childhood. I weep.
Sunlight shifts off me, I rise with a hanging head and walk further into the woods. I see tiny red Teaberries and the evergreen Robins Run that was Christmas garland for Great Grandfather. Bending, caressing along their tiny delicate pine like branches, I smile. Nature comforts me as I sense its familiarity.
Then I see it. The remains of a fire; charred, shiny black chunks of pine; beer cans strewn about fresh tree stumps. I suck air in, taste the acrid lingering smoke; I flush with anger, have to get away from the carless destruction. Crying, I go to Daddy.
“Use that anger,” he says, “write your paper about how you feel.”
Home from college after Daddy passed away; missing him, I invite Grandmom to walk with me in her woods.
“I haven’t been back there for years,” she says, “Pop Pop and I would walk there when first married.”
Holding Grandmom’s hand, we go into the deep woods and find the nodding fragrant white flowers of Wintergreen. Clutching them to her nose, I see a distant look in her eyes.
“Pop Pop would pick me these and the Myrtle, let’s see the Myrtle patch.”
My chest thumps nervously; I don’t want Grandmom to see the holes I once found. What relief to find them grown over and I realize, that left alone, nature might heal. Picking Myrtle, Grandmom cries happy tears. That night I open my window for the call of a Whippoorwill, needing to feel home.
We visit Mama, her disturbing letter on my mind. My daughter walks with me, as she has before, through the field, past the tree with Great Grandfather’s wire fence still protruding from its inner bark and into Grandmom’s woods. I hardly recognize what is so much a part of me. Dirt bike trails cut through the Laurel, holes dug, hills built, Huckleberries cleared, and trees cut down, beer cans, garbage everywhere, even the Myrtle patch, struggling to survive.
Grandmom’s woods bordered another’s at the gravel pit; those woods changed hands. We stand at the edge of that old pit, where in youth I watched the sun set and looked for answers. Now I see condos.
Searching for the Ladies’ Slippers, I can only find the worn, barren “secret” spot of the protected plant. Tears don’t cool my cheek.
Kneeling beside my daughter, at the edge of a depression, she removes some dried leaves revealing small tough leaves and a tiny blossom.
“Your Daddy’s Trailing Arbutus,” she says, recognizing them.
Grandmom’s woods have suffered burning, littering, chopping, scaring beyond recognition, but a tiny flower gives me hope.
We walk out of the woods into the lonely field, past where Grandmom’s barn once stood, past the old dried up pond, I remember so well. Nothing around me is the same; the security and familiarity of the woods are gone. Night approaches. I look back toward the trees and see their dark silhouette against the orange sky of evening, longing for the call of a Whippoorwill.