Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.
When I was a little girl, I used to dream of one day living in an older home, on a wooded country lot, where nobody would know or care if the dog barked all day at squirrels, or if we forgot to bring the cans in before dark on collection day. I had an active imagination, and conjured images of our little family, abandoning convention, to establish residence in the hinterland, where streets were lanes, and had names like Whippoorwill and Mulberry.
I'd imagine having a yard with no sidewalks, and a grass and gravel drive that crunched when visitors came calling. There'd be a tire-swing in the front, and a tree house in the back, where my brother and I could camp-out on warm summer nights, with flashlights and bug jars tucked under our pillows.
I envisioned myself walking through a sea of fallen autumn leaves that we'd leave lying on the ground, simply because we could, or of raking them together into crisp brown hillocks to be scaled and scattered again. I dreamt of doing all the things that children do that live in the country, owning a cat, fishing in a nearby pond, raising chickens and burning trash in a barrel in the back yard.
But, I'd only ever know the prim uniformity of life in the suburbs, where subdivision streets had names like Kent and Marlboro, and everybody had matching mailboxes and paved drives. Our homes were constructed on land that had been previously farmed and sold to developers to satisfy the needs of the upwardly mobile.
There were never any trees large enough to climb in our neighborhood, which is probably why we tried scaling the telephone poles. We fashioned fishing rods from string and coat hangers, and headed down to the corner storm sewer, where on a good day, we'd boast a haul of tin cans and old sneakers. We played kickball in the street after dinner, and cursed to ourselves when the streetlights came on, signaling time to go in.
I tried to convey my feelings about the country to my mother, who I'm sure wondered how on earth she'd managed to produce a child with ideas and aspirations so different from her own, for she loved suburban living, and counted us lucky to be among those privileged enough to live where the schools were good, and the grocery stores new, and well lit.
Mom was raised in the city, along with her four siblings, in a two bedroom clapboard house, that was perched along a steep city street. Only a few feet and a crumbling sidewalk separated the cement steps and front stoop, from the curb. The only bathroom, was in the basement, which had a dirt floor, that my grandfather crudely cemented over.
Whenever I'd complain about having to mop the linoleum, Mom would recount how as a teen, she'd scrubbed the ragged wooden floors of their home, on hands and knees bloodied by splinters. That was usually enough to shut me up. On weekends, when I was sent forth to dig dandelions with a screw driver, I was reminded how fortunate I was to have a lawn from which there were dandelions to dig. Apparently, Mom had been handed a broom and sent out to sweep the dusty patch of land between the back door and the low fence that separated the city residences.
My parents weren't insensitive, but they had their own dreams to fulfill. As consolation, Santa brought me James Herriot's, All Creatures Great and Small, which chronicled the author's life as a country vet in mid-twentieth century Yorkshire, England. I adored it, as my parents knew I would, and went on to read the entire series of books, even though they were written for a much older audience. Not long after, it was agreed I could begin English riding lessons. If I couldn't live in the country, at least I could pretend that I did, and for a couple of hours every Saturday while hanging around the horses, the hay and the smell of leather, I felt like a country girl.
By age fifteen, it became clear I'd never talk my parents into evicting the station wagon so I could turn our attached garage into a stall for a more high-maintenance form of transportation. I realized it was in my own best interest to accept my more urban life for what it was, especially if I wanted to make friends in my suburban Detroit high school. So in ninth grade, I put my pastoral dreams to rest, along with my riding boots and James Herriot books and didn't look back.
Thirteen years later, as a married woman with a family of my own, I found myself living with the same parameters as my parents. We bought homes in manicured neighborhoods a reasonable driving distance from the city, in areas with good schools and convenient shopping. For the first several years of our marriage, we were a picture-postcard, suburban-American family, living seemingly ordinary lives. Until . . .
They say, the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree, and when my little seedlings began spreading their roots, it wasn't for city soil they yearned. It was apparent our daughters shared my bucolic aspirations.
Fortunately, the city boy I'd married had an open mind and an appetite for adventure. I can't say we abandoned conformity altogether, for we didn't renounce all modern material comforts and move way out into the country, but far enough to enjoy a country life-style as hobby farmers, complete with barn cats and saddle horses, in communities that were practical, but not ordinary. For seven blissful years, I didn't have to pretend to be a country girl. I was one!
When the girls grew up and moved out to begin families of their own, it no longer seemed practical to hold onto the big house and property. I believed my country days had come to an end. We emptied our barn, and took the smaller left-overs back to the suburbs with us.
But, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, my dream of country living, lived on to see yet another incarnation. We have officially ended our third summer of real country living, in a small shingled cottage on a wooded acreage an hour and a half from the city, where the dogs may bark at squirrels or deer and bother no one, and the driveway crunches when visitors come to call.
I no longer own a pair of riding boots, and content myself with photographing rather than riding horses, but when I feel like curling up with a good book, I need only reach as far as the coffee table to find my old favorite waiting. Kindred spirits in more ways than one, I no longer consider keeping company with Mr. Herriot, a consolation.
James Herriot is the pen name of James Alfred Wight.