The bench

“Seated here in contemplations lost, my thought discovers vaster space beyond, supernal silence and unfathomed peace”
Giacomo Leopardi

The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.
Wendell Berry

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(remnants of a red cedar picnic bench / Julie Cook / 2015)

Fifty years ago it came to be.
The red cedar picnic table, along with the accompanying two benches, just appeared one hot summer afternoon out back on the fenced green lawn, sheltered under the shade of the tall pine tree.
It was long before central air-conditioning.
Every window in the house was wide open.
It was cooler out rather than in.

These were the days before every home had a two, three or even four car garage.
Despite cheap gas, frugality reigned.
It was a time when everyone was home more often than away.
A time when families and neighbors would gather together outside in order to cool off, simply sharing the riches of one another’s lives.

Backyard cookouts, neighborhood block parties, a time of lazy summer days. . .
Life was delightfully slower back then.
Most moms were home, as dads were at work and the kids whiled away the hours outside.
Kick the can
Hide-n-seek
Stickball games
Collecting evening fireflies
Catching crawfish in the creek
A single voice calling out “Marco. . .”
while a handful of youthful voices echoed back “Polo. . .”

This was the time before toxic waters, child predators and electronic this and thats. .
There was no need for cell phones. . .parents knew kids would be home at dark.
High fashion consisted of tee shirts, cut offs and a new pair of keds.

Popsicles dribbled down chins,
As everyone shooed the flies aways from the platter of ice cold slices of watermelon.
Winning the seed spiting contests always went to those who still had their front teeth.
Mothers were insistent on everyone wearing their tennis shoes while youthful feet clamored to be free
“I don’t want to hear it when you get a splinter or step on a yellow jacket. . .”

A neighborhood full of youthful energy each took their places at the table, sliding onto the benches oh so gingerly so as not to rub bare legs carelessly over the red cedar wood.
“Everyone look this way and smile”. . .
As the Kodak flash cube blinked and clicked with the advancement of the film.

The paper plates were ladened with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Lays potato chips and fritos along with freshly washed green grapes. . .however it was to the ice-cream sandwiches and fudge bars that all eyes turned.
“Now ya’ll wait a while after eating–I don’t want you running around making yourselves sick. . .”
As the moms sipped iced coffee and puffed on their cigarettes.

Yet sadly, time always has a way of catching up with Life.
The children grew up and one by one, grew away.
With each passing summer there were less and less members gathered around the table.
The joyful chatter of youthful exuberance grew silent
The pine straw fell, covering the table as the benches remained empty and bare.
Abandoned and finally forgotten. . .that is until today.

Fifty years later, a lone bench is found hidden deep in the woods.
Time and the elements have each laid claim to the table and fellow bench, but the lone single bench remains much as it did—waiting and inviting any and all who might wish to sit a spell while spending a summer’s evening listening to the sound of the whip-poor-will and the distant echo of the laughter of children.

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the neighborhood kids

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“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”

Martin Buber

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I grew up in Atlanta during the 1960’s. For all the world’s angst during the turbulent 60s’— between Vietnam protests, the birth of the hippies/flower children and the “Peace Movement” to woman’s lib, Woodstock, Hell’s Angels…my world was pretty oblivious. I lived on a street that was/is known as a “court”—a road that is a dead-end but actually has a rounded ending allowing cars to flow back out down the street as they came in. Ten houses were/are still on the street. Five of the houses had kids with another having visiting grandkids.

It was a wonderful place for kids—a relative safe enclave as the cars coming and going were, for the majority, residents of the street all knowing to watch out, as we were constantly taking over the street. We used the court end as a baseball field, as the location for the can in our night games of “kick the can”, as a roller skating rink, our bike raceway and as a basketball court as one neighbor erected a basketball backboard and net on the telephone pole.

Every house’s back yard was fair game for us. One yard was particularly ideal for a neighborhood game of football. This neighbor had a nice boat that he kept flipped over on two sawhorses that provided a wonderful place to “play” pirates….no one thought of the danger of the boat falling on any of us. At any moment a neighbor could peek out a window catching a glimpse of a young person running past, moving towards the next adventure—as surrounding the houses on one side of the strew were “the woods” and on the other side of the street, back behind those houses, was “the creek”.

With adventure and imagined danger lurking at every turn we were in childhood heaven in the middle of the big city. There were pine straw forts in the woods, with sand bar islands claimed as territory up and down the creek. I suppose back then parents didn’t worry perhaps as they do today. We could spend all day in woods and creek, not returning home until sundown all without any parents batting an eye.

My mother had an antique cow bell she’d ring, stepping out the back door swinging that thing back and forth—I was so embarrassed as it sounded as if the whole world knew the Nichols kids had to hurry home. But that only meant running in to grab a jar, complete with lid, hurrying back out to catch the summer’s arriving lightning bugs or fire flies.

It was an ideal time and way of growing up—or so it seemed to us—the violence of today just didn’t seem to exist, and if it did, it was far removed from our world. There were not the sexual predators we hear of almost daily today, or if there were, we didn’t know about it. We longed for the ice cream man to come to our street, not ever thinking he could be someone who would do harm to kids.
We walked the mile to and from elementary school, our parents never imaging that doing so could put any of us at risk for “disappearing”—thank God—thank God for that innocence of time.

Our lemonade stand was actually an ice tea stand—we made all of $2—and were proud of it. With only 10 houses our “business” was a bit limited and not “booming”. The greatest tragedy was when my cat wandered down to the busier street that our street emptied into. My dad constantly warned us to never ever go down to that street as cars just zipped up and down. Our bus stop was located on the corner and that was as far as we could go unescorted.

My Charcoal unfortunately wandered one night too far. We found him, as we all made our way to the bus stop one morning—everyone started yelling about the run-over dead cat, of which I explained was simply sleeping. I was in the first grade, what did I know?! On further inspection we all realized it was my cat. I remember running all the way back to the house, crying hysterically. My dad had to go get him in order to bury him in our backyard—-how many pets are still there in that yard…..

My Dad and step-mom still live in the house. Things have changed very little yet there are subtleties—the kids are all grown and gone, and even their children, the grandchildren are now grown. The street has only 3 of the original owners remaining and is mostly silent now. The urban sprawl of the city has grown and is encroaching more and more on the “neighborhood” but the street is still dreamlike and peaceful. I wouldn’t let any child walk to school today, or play in the polluted creek, or in what remains of any woods that has yet been developed. Dad doesn’t know the names of the neighbors….and I never see anyone out when I go to visit but maybe a passing jogger….sadly the innocence seems to have faded away….pity

Today I want to share with you my neighborhood’s kids. Well, I can’t say that I really live in a neighborhood as I am surrounded by woods and pastures but I still have kids that I can catch a glimpse of running past my window. These kids may not be as friendly as we were, but they still enjoy running around the yard, chasing and being chased….investigating this and that and simply having fun just “hanging out”…

I’ve had the joy and pleasure of watching these two grow up since this past winter….hopefully, they will be back with their children soon……as I hope my yard can maintain an innocence for them……