I grew up in the woods. There’s really no other way to say it. Growing up I couldn’t see any neighbours houses, just trees. As a little girl my days were spent outside in the trees playing house.
I pretended the stand of trees between my house and the lower driveway, which went out to the potato field, was my castle. It had a courtyard and a drawbridge and kitchens and sitting rooms and lavish bedrooms. I was the princess who lived there and commanded the domain. I had servants and maids and cooks and horses and chickens and all manner of luxury.
The stone walls and huge wooden doors were embedded in my imagination, marked by trees as cornerstones. I gathered ferns and imagined them to be all kinds of different food. Some stalks were large pieces of chicken while others were lettuce, green beans or some kind of fruit. I could play there all day alone, and I did for years before my baby sisters, four and six years my junior, came to play with me.
When I played alone I didn’t even need to speak out loud, all the people and the conversations happened in my mind. I might occasionally laugh out loud because things took a funny turn but generally it was a silent pantomime — a young girl in checkered slacks and canvas sneakers moving around the woods gathering ferns.
In the winter, when the snow was too deep to allow passage into the woods, I burrowed my way underneath the clothesline stand and wintered in my snow lodge. The snow walls kept out the biting wind and I could dig in the frozen sand and rocks for ingredients to bake a cake or fortify my fortress from attack.
I was fascinated by the way I could see my breath in the air when I blew it out of my mouth. And I loved that if I stayed very still nobody would be able to find me because I was hidden from view.
I used to imagine that bad people came to the house while I was in my spot and I would watch them from my hiding place as they took my mom and sisters. They would point guns at my mom and ask her where her oldest daughter was, but she would lie and say I was away playing with friends, as her eyes wildly scanned the trees and snowbanks hoping not to see the pompom on my winter hat. When they left I would be able to tell my dad and the police exactly what the bad people looked like, which way they went and what kind of car they drove. At the end of the ordeal when my family was reunited and the bad guys were gone to jail, I would be the hero who had saved the day.
None of this ever happened in real life, only in my mind. I had a vivid imagination and an incredible ability to visualise in my mind’s eye. I was not an active child. I was big and awkward and painfully shy but I would sit for hours outside and imagine all kinds of exciting and adventurous scenarios. In the summer time I might even bring one of the many books I read outside to read in the shade as I leaned against a tree, but in the winter time I proved every day that I didn’t need a book, or any toys, or any people to keep me entertained. In the winter, it was just me in the cold, alone with my thoughts.
I didn’t really know how to play with other kids. My sisters were so much younger than me and my best friend had other friends too and was more outgoing and social than me. I would get jealous when I would go to her house and try to play when she had other people there too. I always felt left out, because I was less active and bigger and I didn’t know how to run around and climb trees and actively play. I only knew how to imagine doing those things.
At the time I felt like they would purposely do things they knew I didn’t know how to do so they could be away from me. I would stand on the ground and scuff the toe of my shoe in the sand as I looked up in the trees and wished I knew how to be up there too, not just in my imagination, but in real life. I wished I was more like my friend. I even wished I was a boy, because from what I could see, being a boy seemed to be an easier way to be. They could run fast and climb trees, naturally. I was scared of getting stuck or falling and breaking my neck. I was scared kids would laugh at me for trying and failing. So I didn’t try. It was easier to sit in the woods and imagine a full sized big house, on the ground, where I was queen.
As an adult I have learned to try and fail. I have learned that most times when that little voice says I can’t do it, it’s too dangerous, or people will laugh at me, those are the times when I need to just suck it up and push through, do it anyway, at least try. And sometimes it works out to be the best most exhilarating thing ever! And sometimes I get hurt and become a disappointment to my family or myself. Even more rarely though, someone will laugh at my failure.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell that chubby little girl in the petal pink top with the hair-bows in her long blonde hair to climb that tree and be fearless. To climb that tree and not worry about falling because even if she falls she might not get hurt or she might break some bones but at least she will have tried.
And trying matters.