Wild patches quilt my Floridian memories, from my third-grade arrival in Ft. Pierce until my graduation from the University of Florida at Gainesville. In Ft. Pierce I threaded through a thick stand of bamboo as if it were a maze. A decade later in Gainesville there was a nearby wood with a tinkling creek to which I took my ambivalent feelings over the loss—was it a loss? hadn’t I done it deliberately?—of my virginity.
But the wood that seems crucial now is the one behind our trailer in Vero Beach when I was thirteen. They were trailers in the 1950s: “mobile home” was barely coming into vogue, much less “modular housing.” It was a trailer we lived in, eight feet wide, its cabinets and doors, like those of a ship’s cabin, designed for movement. Daddy would’ve been happy to captain yachts the rest of his life and haul us to a new town whenever the boat changed harbors. The trailer to him was an ideal home, although his immigrant parents in New York were scandalized by it. “Living like gypsies,” my grandmother spit. She was from Eastern Europe and “gypsy” was a dirty word.
Near the trailer, a sandy set of ruts cut through the wood to intersect a blacktop road which bordered the several blocks of residential streets between there and school. I almost never took that path, instead angled through the wood of scrub oak, Florida pine and palmetto. A mat of rusty pine needles kept undergrowth sparse enough to make for easy, quiet walking. I sometimes scared up a covey of quail, saw chameleons flushing from brown to green among the leaves, or detoured around a wood spider’s web, a transparent trap hung between trees, the great brown creature at center large as my hand. I was at ease there; shaded, unseen.
A canal sliced between the wood and blacktop—canals bordered most roads in that place. This one was typical, its dark water edged in elephant ears, its sluggish surface dusted with chartreuse. I often heard but seldom saw frogs plopping into it—they were quick to sense my approach—and rarely caught a water moccasin curving over its turbid skin. Only twice, in all those school day crossings, did I see the narrow snout of a small crocodile, its eyes and nostrils like paired periscopes rippling burnt umber water.
A spongy palm log straddled the narrow ditch. I crossed it with reluctance, leaving diffused light to enter squinting glare. Moving was not easy anymore and this was the eighth town, the eighth school. The wood was my sanctuary, my only solitude at a time when my parents and two younger brothers and I lived in close quarters, at a time when I’d begun to need privacy like babies need milk. It was to the wood I went with my delicious melancholy, the rare tears I kept jealously to myself, the aching in my swelling breasts. In the cycling blues of my recently begun menstruation, I whispered my troubles to the trees, hugged and patted their lichen-patched trunks and was comforted.
I had a diary that year, a small red leatherette book, with a gold lock that soon peeled to reveal the dull metal beneath. It had one lined page for each day. Mom thought it was the thing to give a girl at a certain age. Perhaps it was a gift she wished had been given to her. I’m not sure girls got diaries as gifts anymore, just as I wasn’t sure they still got hope chests, like the heavy cedar one she gave me a few years later.
“You can start to collect linens,” she explained, “so when the time comes you’ll have some things already.”
It was bittersweet, for the cedar chest was given with love, at a cost beyond what she could afford. Yet it represented such little understanding of me, that I had to hide my embarrassment. I wasn’t getting married, ever. I’d said so over and over. Would she never believe me? I stored my books in the fragrant chest, a few dutifully purchased pillowcases, and a starter set of silverware an aunt sent me.
At thirteen, I liked the idea of the locked diary’s secrecy, but so far had only dabbled at recording events, laboriously fitting each day into its tiny page. I wrote about the friends I’d left in Daytona that year and how I missed them. I had understood that this diary business was supposed to be fun, but it was tedious, and I skipped weeks at a time.
Then bulldozers leveled every tree to build new cement block houses. They took three days to do it, left the sandy dirt steaming; swampy water filling caterpillar track wounds; broken snarls of root breaking the surface at random like drowning fingers clutching air. The wood was gone. From the trailer windows the blacktop road was in plain view, and the houses beyond it, and all the unbearable glare of the sun in that eighth and awful little town where I knew no one and now had not even the trees. I opened the diary and wrote for a dozen pages, oblivious of dates, driven by my grief for the wood and its creatures, for myself. It was the first time I found the act of writing to be a source of consolation. It was the first time I’d written so that I knew it mattered, so that what I needed to say overrode the flimsy barrier of the passage of days.
I can smell the woods (I can smell the trailer, too). Great piece.
Carson, I’m seeing a trend in the pieces you like, and your judgment carries weight. Hmmm, memoir stuff, huh?
Dear Pat, Thank you for sharing this splendid essay. (Is this for a longer memoir or a collection?)
Catherine, I have a number of these memoir pieces lately, but haven’t worked on putting them all together, although I’ve certainly thought about it. Yet another possible project on my list! But thank you: your opinion is highly valued around here.
Yep…the woods were my escape as a young gal so I identified with this piece. My great escape was up a tree with a book. Luckily my woods did not get mowed down. Thanks for bringing back those memories!
A lovely evocation recollection. Some overlap with my boyhood in Alabama. Though living in Birmingham, we had woods behind the house in which to wander.
Makes me miss the woods even more.