When I was a little girl, the park was right across the street from where I lived. Every ward (precinct) had a playground, as well as an elementary school. Our park was huge and had a big baseball field adjacent. At the southern end of the park, running east to west, there was a creek (“crick” if you grew up in these parts) that provided homes for many forms of life: minnows, frogs, a few snakes, beetles, and the ever-present crayfish (“crabs” if you grew up in these parts) that could grow to be as big as a little girl’s whole hand. Those crabs were the ultimate “get” for a lot of kids. They hid under rocks, like alien creatures with bodies that could be muddy green, brown, or the occasional darkest blue. Their antennae wiggled intelligently and their claws were always at the ready for some unfortunate, foolish child who dared to try and touch them from the front.
We would spend hours on the banks and in the silty waters of that creek during the summer, overturning rocks and catching crabs. They were deceptively adept at evading capture; you’d think you had them, only to see them effortlessly piston themselves backwards, floating through the water with their tails tucked underneath. If you timed it right, and grabbed them behind their pincers and just squeezed gently, you could pick them up and plop them into whatever container you had at the ready: a coffee can, a bowl, a big, glass jar. I never kept mine for long or surrendered them to the boys, who would cruelly poke them with sticks to see them attack the wood with their great claws or try to have the crayfish version of WFF on the hot pavement of the basketball court.
No, I would always feel sorry for them, fancying myself as a sort of facilitator of TNR for crabs. At the advanced age of 7 or 8, this was my life’s work during the summer. The idea that I was “saving” them by catching them is an irony not lost on me today, but back then, I thought I was doing noble work. You see, if you creeped eastward along the banks of the creek and then through some dense trees and brush, you entered a sort of secret spot, an emerald Shangri-La where the trees and brush were so tall, the area was completely canopied. A mammoth pipe – at least 6 feet in circumference – emerged horizontally from the ground, like a giant, rusty black hole. It ran underneath High Street, which was just east, starting up in the back yard of house #237. (When I grew up, I would become the owner of #237 and raise my kids there. That underground pipe was the bane of our existence when it would become too backed-up with debris and the creek would spill into our yard.)
But as a child, it was a mysterious opening that none of us ever even contemplated investigating, because we knew that within these drain pipes and dark places, there were certainly monsters. The water was pretty deep, about 2 feet, where the pipe yawned, and I would take my rescued crabs and assorted minnows to the edge near that deeper water, where I would give them an urgent, stern talking-to about staying safe and not getting caught by the boys, and then release them into that calm, cool pool of water. My hope was that they’d stay there, preferring its shady depths to the perilously low waters and dangerous terrain that exposed them to capture down below.
Then, I would sit, sometimes for hours, in that canopied, shadowy green place that was alive with flying insects and trickling water. My mother didn’t like it when I would disappear into this oasis of vegetation, rock, water, and wriggling, swimming life; I think she feared that I would travel up through the drain pipe. She didn’t need to worry about that; though I have never been afraid of the dark, I am also a true Taurus, relishing places that feed my preference for beauty and comfort. This little piece of Pennsylvania paradise suited me just fine. It was a place of solace and needed solitude; a place where a handful of us would go to enjoy the calm that even a child needs once in a while. It was the destination for two of us, when we needed to talk, or plan, or even scheme.
The sun would peek through the little holes between the leaves of the tree limbs that sheltered us overhead, making prism-like light on the water in the creek. It was like being in a diamond-encrusted cave. Sometimes, I’d rearrange rocks and look for little, round, white river rocks and hunks, thick ropes, and tendrils of green glass; remnants left behind by a glass factory that had stood not far from the creek during a bygone era when Bradford was growing by leaps and bounds and people predicted that it was going to be a booming metropolis, like New York. Even back when I sat under the shelter of those trees, in 1974, it was declining, populated primarily by blue collar workers and a handful of extremely well-off families who wouldn’t even contemplate allowing their child to play in a hill runoff creek. They took their kids to the country club or paid the money for them to spend the day at Callahan Pool, where the lifeguards served as defacto babysitters.
My babysitter was that creek, and that park, and the hills surrounding us. It was old, abandoned oil derrick shacks up in the woods and piles of junk in the junk yard, where we’d find boards and old buggy wheels and all manner of parts with which to build go-carts to race down Grove Street. It was hot, dusty afternoons playing kickball and hide-and-seek and games of chase at twilight on magical, summer nights, frolicking while our mothers bellowed our names and threatened “the paddle” if we didn’t get inside right this instant.
We didn’t fear the paddle, and we knew that, aside from some irritated shouts and maybe a swat on the behind – if they could catch us as we scurried past them for the front door – the little smiles that played on their lips that clamped down on cigarettes meant that they’d enjoyed standing at the corner, gossiping about this one and that one while they waited for us to exhaust that final, burst of energy that fueled the day.
Once inside, it was bath time, because I was almost always a filthy mess, my feet covered in dust, grass stains on my perpetually scabbed knees, dried mud underneath my fingernails from making mud pies and overturning creek rocks to save the crabs, grime caught between the folds of skin where my neck joined my shoulders.
I’d sink into the tub of water and let it run until it covered me, fascinated by the rivulets of brownish muck that would color the water quickly and mingle with the bubbles from the bubble bath. I’d sink down, underneath the water, where it was a different kind of quiet than my green canopied hideaway, and stay there until my lungs signaled an urgent return to the above. Then, I’d get to the business of washing (“worshing” if you grew up in these parts) my limbs and hair and usually behind my ears. Once that was out of the way, I could just lay back in the water and pretend I was in the ocean, letting my limbs relax and go slack. I’d examine my tan lines, marveling at how golden brown I was on my face, arms, legs, upper chest, and belly, while my other parts were a shockingly pale color. I preferred the sun-braised look of my skin to that white; somehow, it seemed to be proof of my youth and vitality. I feel the same way even today; I think that I will always feel young, as long as I am tan.
When much time had passed and my mother and grandmother had decided enough is enough, one of them would call up the stairs and tell me it was time to get out. Begrudgingly, I’d towel myself off and put on fresh panties and a summer nightgown or filmy, nylon pjs that were usually some pale, washed-out color, threadbare at the knees. I’d run a brush through my hair and then meander downstairs in my bare feet to eat a snack and watch some tv. Occasionally, there’d be an inspection of my efficiency in the bath, and nails – fingers and toes – would be clipped. “Look at you! Shriveled up like a prune! You were in too long,” I’d be told. Silently, I’d disagree. My ears would be cleaned with Qtips. “You could have potatoes growing in these ears!” I’d be told. Silently, I’d disagree again.
At bedtime, I would crawl underneath a sheet because it was still too hot, and listen to the droning of the tv downstairs and the crickets and peepers outside my window. The faint aroma of my mother’s cigarette would waft up the staircase, and I would feel that heavy, exhausted weight of a day played well and hard carry me into the depths of sleep.
Wash, rinse, repeat, until 1975, and the arrival of The Male Sibling Unit. Life changed then, and was not so carefree. Instead of crabs, there was a younger sibling to save, who needed my protection and vigilance. This was truly when childhood ended for me, but I am so glad to have the memories of what came before. What came after made me the tough nut with scarred shell that I am today, but what came before reminds me of who I would like to be: the sweet, soft, unmarked flesh inside of that nut.
It’s encouraging to know that she still lives within.