Imagine a taller than average grubby 9 year-old girl with hazel-green eyes, almost waist length brown hair, and clumsy arms and legs. That was me: dirty, clumsy, and shy. It wasn't quite a 1000 yard stare, but I tended to look through things and people. My main focus was occupied trying to project the images I had created in my mind onto the world. In addition to my unkempt, gawky, and reserved nature, I possessed an extraordinary imagination. To help with this, I was rarely ever without a book. Books, I found, were useful in exercising my imagination and insulating me against the more troubled aspects of my life.
I learned early as a child that the consequences for damaging or dirtying "good clothes" were severe. Consequently, I made sure to wear play clothes when I was going outside. In the summer, this typically meant I was in cutoffs and some sort of t-shirt, a tattered windbreaker, canvas shoes, and occasionally matching socks. I would generally lose the socks and shoes as fast as I could once I got away from the house. My hair was always a mess, somewhere between stringy and dirty and knotted and dirty. There were cuts and bruises all over my legs and arms, usually from playing in the woods. I was constantly covered in a mixture of dirt, sweat, pitch, and sometimes coal dust depending on my adventures of the day.
"Going outside" was the family phrase for leaving the house and roaming the woods. I made going outside a priority on most days. On this particular day, I decided I wanted to visit the junk pile on the hill. Mom had gone to work, and Dad was taking a nap. My siblings were somewhere doing something. It was the perfect time to bolt. I had my literary reprieve selected; a book from the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. They were a few years below my reading level at the time. Despite that, they were well written and an interesting perspective on Welsh mythology, definitely worth escaping into. I collected my shoes and jacket, trying desperately to be quiet on my way out. In the event I woke Dad, it was likely I would be put to work. This had to be avoided whenever possible.
Once safely outside, I scrambled up the hill next to the small garage. There was a field of wild grass I waded through on my way up to the junk pile. I always took time to run my hands across the blades, swishing them and creating a distinct whooshing sound. If I did it just right, it sounded like waves rolling into shore. On most occasions as I moved through the grass, I imagined I was crossing a small river. The junk pile was near the top of the hill on the other side of the river. As I passed through the river, I entered into the pines. Incredibly dry, old pine needles make a satisfying crunch when stepped on. I always enjoyed crunching my way to the top of the hill.
The junk pile consisted of mostly iron based objects; old engines, tire rims, drag chains, gears, a rusted out 40s era Studebaker with half a hood ornament. The Studebaker was, in short, awesome for all things imagination related. The dash nobs were still intact, as was the radio, the shifter, and the gigantic steering wheel. This particular day, however, the Studebaker was not on the agenda for fun. I had come across an object in the pile that lent itself to my imagination; a grate from an old gas burning furnace. The grate was approximately two feet wide and a foot tall. It was metal with a faux wood grain enamel coating. I had decided the grate would make the perfect window in my outdoor reading room.
Other people might consider it sort of unnecessary to have a "window" in a forest. There were no walls or ceiling, the floor was the pine needle covered ground, and I could see everything around me as it was. The point of the outdoor reading room was to have a safe space to read...outside. For some reason, however, it made sense to me to have a window. To get the window where I could see through while sitting on the ground, I had to wedge it between two very spindly oak trees. The oaks were really almost shrubs, probably 8-10 feet high, only about 3 inches in diameter. They bent and swayed easily, even for a clumsy 9 year-old. Their branches and leaves provided a nice canopy for my little retreat.
Of course, a window really needs a ledge or small shelf beneath it. To further the decorative vision of my space, I pinned a beautifully weathered board in between the oaks as well. Naturally, a shelf under a window needs a vase with flowers and a book. In an effort to complete my vision, I re-purposed a rather large gear with equal amounts of flaking yellow paint and rust to function as a vase. My vase held wild larkspur, which I was convinced were really tiny (literal) shooting stars in a pretty shade of purple that had been frozen in time. My book fit very nicely on the shelf beneath the window, and it complemented the vase and shooting stars well. My reading spot was complete.
I read for hours in my space until I heard Mom's car driving up the road. It would be dinner time soon, and it was a punishable offense to be late to the table. I put the grate, gear, and board back where I found them. I couldn't risk leaving my reading place intact. If I did, chances were my siblings would wreck it to torment me. I gathered the discarded shooting stars for Mom, I liked to give her pretty things, and I wandered back to the house. I planned to return later, maybe tomorrow.I did return to that place many times, for many years after I created it. It was one of my favorite hiding spots. I still love to read outside, although it has been some time since I created a reading place from junk in the middle of a national forest. Not that it's beyond me, I just don't happen to have a national forest or a junk pile at the moment. I'm amazed at the typical summer day of 9 year-old Rita compared to my current summer days. There are shared elements, namely lots of books and reading in isolation away from the overbearing presence of other people. I like not having to sneak out of the house, however, sometimes it feels like I have to sneak out of work. I continue to love larkspur, but I haven't seen any since I moved away from the Hills which is quite sad. I also continue to love the idea that they could be shooting stars frozen in time...