Grandpa’s Woods

It was an ordinary August morning, with the sun stretching his arms higher into the sky and the birds beginning to sing from their secret clubhouses in the trees.

I was home for two weeks, a trip that necessitated several trips down an old gravel road – sandy-colored and freckled with rocks, lined with Mertens and used-tos.

One of these trips was to Grandpa’s woods, at the turn right before the bridge where my child mother and my child uncles and aunt used to swim in the creek.  Car resting at the gate, I walked past the old rye field – a vacant lot in a city of trees – and headed into the woods.

I followed the two-track that cuts through the forest and connects to the property next door, blended into the quiet shades of brown and green, and gazed up at the trees.

And suddenly, on this day, as I walked close to these trees, I felt strangely close to someone else.  To a white-haired man with a mischievous grin and a pair of red suspenders to match.  A man who loved to toss around good jokes and little pieces of wisdom.  A man who drilled, cultivated, built, and raised up.  A man who was particularly fond of these trees.  And the wood that they gifted to him when he paid them a visit, ax in hand.

His foot had not stepped on this path in over ten years, and yet, as I stepped around the trees – his trees, I felt him there next to me.

I like to think that people leave little pieces of themselves behind after they leave this earth.  And I like to think that I found a little piece of Grandpa that day, there in the quiet morning woods.

Dear Grandpa, I have tried to write your soul out on paper so many times.  To find ink that will scribble the right words to describe you and replicate you on a page.  A page that I could come back to and see you again, even though you’re not here.  But I’ve never been able to do it.

But that day, in those woods, it was almost like finding a note from you under a root.  A little piece of your soul, waiting there just to take a walk with me.

It’s nice to know that the trees have been able to do what I have not.

Grandpa's woods comin' up on the right! (Picture borrowed from my cousin Ethan)

Grandpa’s woods comin’ up on the right! (Picture borrowed from my cousin Ethan.)

Hands in the Dirt

The sky smelled of rain that day, but in a hesitant, non-committal sort of way.  The pipes – white, slender, and made to clasp hands – lay ready on the back of the trailer.  The well-aged yellow of the backhoe warmed in expectation of fistfuls of mud and rock.

We were laying waterline down a road for some participants who had no access to water in their homes.  The idea of someone in the populated U.S. not having running water in their home came as a surprise to me, and the revelation that even people who lived out in the country were attached to city water here (rather than a well, like I have at home) came as another.  But I was here, ready and willing to get my hands in some dirt.

The rain arrived with the rumble of the backhoe.  I watched from the sidelines as the yellow arm stirred up the dirt and piled it to the side, my clothes becoming steadily more damp as the trench grew steadily longer.  But the rain was, after all, afraid of commitments.  So it soon fizzled out, only coming back for brief reappearances throughout the day.  Appearances that, by the time the sun had beaten the water from our bodies, were welcome.

Once the backhoe had dug enough trench line for us to begin, Clarence and I jumped down into the waist-deep furrow; pipes, glue, and markers (to keep the four different water lines that we were laying in order) in hand.  We laid the pipes, then covered them with a thin layer of soil, picking the rocks out of the dirt as we went.  The backhoe would return to fill in the rest.

As I paddled through the damp earth with my hands, I couldn’t help but think of another version of myself:  The elementary schooler on summer vacation.  There was a pile of dirt in our backyard that year, and like any new and potential-packed element of the outdoors, it became a playground for my brothers and I.  On one occasion I marched outside, brown hair swinging loose, skinny limbs clad in a blue butterfly shirt and matching shorts, and buried my hands in the dirt for no other purpose than to get them dirty.  I dug around in the dirt, letting the soil grout my fingernails and turn my hands and forearms to a pleasing shade of gray.

Just getting dirty for the sake of getting dirty was fun.  But the most fun part came when I walked back to the house.  Here was what I was waiting for.  Here was the reward that I had paddled about in the dirt to get.

Slap.  Slap.  Slap.  My bare feet found their way to the bathroom linoleum.

Whoosh.  On went the water.

And then came the prize, as I gleefully watched my hands turn the clear water to brown.  Yes.  This was the best part.  I could in no way have explained why, but there is something about watching dirt wash away that is remarkably satisfying.

But today me hadn’t reached that point yet.  Today me was still in the trench, pawing in the dirt.

“Four!” Clarence called out the pipe number as it was glued to its companion.

“Four!” I responded, as I marked the other end with my Sharpie.  And then, just for jollies, added a small picture of a barn to the side of the white pipe.  A sketch from me, meant to be forever buried beneath a few feet of soil – a proper place for the display of chicken-scratch artwork.

And then the tossing of the rocks and the paddling of the dirt back into the hole.  The soil grout was lining my fingernails once again and my already sun-browned arms were turning an even more pleasing shade of dirt.

“It’s HOT, Eee-lizabeth.”  Clarence wiped his face on his shirt.

I nodded in agreement.  When it started to rain again; a light drizzle, I didn’t complain; I welcomed it.

We made it to just past the creek that day, then stopped.  This was going to be a several days’ job.  The rocks were slowing our pace.  We climbed up into the truck with our muddied boots and our muddied clothes and our muddied limbs, and left, saving the rest of the trench digging for another day.

And now for the best part.

Pit.  Pat.  Pit.  Pat.  My sweat-stockinged feet found their way to the tile of the bathroom.

Whoosh.  On went the water.

And away went the dirt.  The satisfaction was still there and I was my elementary school self again, smiling as I watched the clear water turn to brown.

But, of course, the most smile-worthy part of all this is that my playtime in the dirt had a purpose this time: to allow someone else to experience the satisfaction that comes from walking into the bathroom of your home, turning on the water, and watching the dirt wash away from your fingertips.

It’s a good feeling, that.  Just ask the little girl with the butterfly shirt and her hands in the dirt.