I grew up on a small block in a large subdivision in a medium sized town in Illinois. Baby trees flanked both sides of the streets of sprawling ranch-style homes. My block consisted of 11 houses with 22 children, all of whom were supposed to stay on our block and not cross the streets. Needless to say, I had quite the selection of friends to play with.
Behind all of our backyards was a quaint Lutheran church and preschool along with 2 enormous baseball fields, a smallish playground and a "sledding hill" that butted up against the church's side. (As an adult, I now recognize that the "hill" was actually a large drainage ditch...)
There were no fences for anyone for many, many years except for that one, exotic, childless couple who lived on the corner. (They had a fence and a large dog and an endless supply of small candies, pennies or freezer pops for me and my friends whenever we'd pick the wife handfuls of the dandelions that carpeted the baseball fields.) All of that open space led me to believe that I truly had freedom, despite the fact that my mother was always within eyesight or earshot. Entire days were spent in the fields of dandelions and clover, narrowly avoiding the bees beneath my bare feet. My best friends and my sisters and I OWNED that church yard. We knew every stoop and step, every tree that provided the perfect shelter for our castaway/pirate/orphan adventures (why did so many of my imaginative play games include or revolve around a catastrophic abandonment??).
Every few summers, the parking lot beside the church would get repaved or patched up. The patch-up years were our favorites. We'd race barefoot and breathless across the fields on the hottest and steamiest of July afternoons just to dare one another to stand on top of the asphalt patch as it liquefied and bubbled in the endless sunshine. It was a matter of PRIDE that I would win as many contests as possible, despite the scorching pain and unavoidable follow-up bath that would result when my mom would witness the sticky pitch footprints on her linoleum. But it was WORTH IT for I was the champion of Blacktop Standing...
One winter, the snow fell and fell and fell and fell on our town. It coated everything and stopped traffic and cancelled schools and freed the children from books and papers and sitting and behaving. We hauled our sleds to that "hill" and flew down the slope towards the church's brick walls. We'd dive off before our skulls crashed into the windows but the pastor didn't think we were quite as precocious as I know that we WERE; he traipsed outside in his boots and reminded the neighborhood hooligans, AGAIN, that this churchyard was not for playing in and to please leave. (We knew he wasn't there all the time. It just required a little patience and we'd be back on that hill again.)
The "Big Boys" from around the corner came by the church after the plow trucks had pressed and compacted the snowfall into the edges and corners of the parking lot, leaving a massive collection of perfect packing snow. Those middle school boys spent an entire day digging and tunneling; excavating rooms and hallways and doorways. They created a fort that towered over my 8 year old head and we wanted to play inside of it soooo badly!
Only because one boy, a friend of the family, vouched for us were we allowed to explore their fort. With strict instructions to NOT TOUCH ANYTHING, we entered what was then, and still is today, the most amazing and magical winter fort I have ever seen in the entire world, EVER. It was a memory I've always retained and I'll always remember the boy who let us in and his kindness to a bunch of little girls on a cold and snowy day, and how, only a few years later, he passed away in a tragic car accident. It's funny how we make marks on people's memories, though. Would it comfort his mother to know that I still retain this sweet memory of her son, after more than 25 years have passed? That he left an imprint in my life?
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