Dreams really do come true. Keep dreaming!
When I was a child living in Abbotsford, Wisconsin, a town with a population of somewhere around 1000 at that time, there was no better time than summer, with the exception of maybe birthdays, Christmas, and snow days off of school. I’m guessing that is probably true of almost every person or child, regardless of what continent they call home (except for maybe the snow days).
Every day of summer had the potential for excitement and carefree fun, even if you were only propped up next to a tree reading a book about some great adventure. I remember one summer day when I was doing just that…
I was sitting with my back to a tree and my knees propped up reading a book I had in my lap. The tree was in the alley that led to the elementary school playground (where the circus had once been set up) and only about a block from my house. It was one of those heavenly summer days that you never want to end. For some reason, I leaned back and looked up, maybe to admire the lovely green leafy-ness that sheltered my spot perfectly. And I’m not sure how long I was in that position, but I remember taking in the hints of blue sky and sunshine that were peeking through the softly swaying branches covered with assorted shades of green leaves rustling and waving in the breeze. All I know is my mouth must have been open, because when I tipped my head back down and started reading my book; I bit down on something bitter and crunchy. I quickly set my book down on the grass next to me and spat the bitter crunchiness out into my hand. What landed there was half of a still moving carpenter ant. In my memory, it was the size of an insect leftover from the dinosaur age. It was huge. The other half was not in my hand or in my mouth. To my horror, I immediately realized I had swallowed it and then in a rather delayed reaction, I screamed. I’m guessing the neighbors in the vicinity of that tree may have heard my verbal taste discovery and what was probably not the first hint that I would never become an insectivore or an entomologist.
Or maybe those neighbors didn’t think anything of hearing a scream. Because all within a block of where we lived and that ‘reading’ tree (that I never read under again), lived a doctor and his wife who owned several peacocks. In my memory, they were always old (the doctor and his wife, silly), although for the life of me I cannot even conjure up what either of them looked like. I just know that when you are a kid, anyone past 20 is old. Plus, they had grandkids who sometimes visited. Anyway, we were always excited when we got to see the peacocks proudly strutting with their fans of gorgeous deep blue and teal colored feathers in full array. But it was their distinctive screaming or mating calls that they made on a rather regular basis that are a vivid part of the sounds of my childhood memories. This family also lived in a stone house with a hedge that completely surrounded their property, which is probably what allowed them to keep peacocks in their yard in the first place. In their backyard was a little girl’s dream – a matching stone playhouse. I used to love ANY opportunity I got to play in that dollhouse, which was, if I remember correctly, only when their grandchildren came to visit.
My family lived in what would have been considered at the time, a big house, although nothing like some of the large homes of today. Situated on the corner of two streets, our house had survived several large families in its almost 100 years of existence and was only a block or two away from being smack dab in the middle of our town.
When our dearly loved elderly next door neighbor Mrs. Lewis died, my mom and dad bought her house. My dad wasn’t interested in the house as much as he was in acquiring the property next door. So during the summer before Mrs. Lewis’ house was torn down, it became our playhouse. From morning until night it was filled and overflowing, upstairs and downstairs, with Spence kids along with all kinds of assorted neighborhood friends. We took turns taking over every room and closet and corner of that house. The outside of the house was a dingy grey color, just like you see in black and white photographs. I don’t remember a lot of color inside, except for some old and faded wallpaper on the walls and a few colorful stained glass windows here and there. But it was the beautiful deep brown wooden staircase that led the way to the assorted second story nooks and crannies and closets and rooms that I loved then and still remember vividly now. We played every kind of game in that house and enjoyed countless all day adventures.
I even remember my oldest brother trying to test or reenact a Mary Poppins move in that house. He jumped out of one of the second story bedroom windows holding only an upright umbrella (CAUTION: Do not try this at home!). Probably due to the grassy cushion of the lawn below or the heavenly protection from all the rosaries our family said after dinner each night, he didn’t kill himself or break anything. Only I do have a vague memory of his walking with a limp for quite a while afterwards.
We even had slumber parties in that old house. Two of my older sisters along with their friends, would sleep in one of the larger upstairs rooms. Sometimes they let me tag along and sleep there too. Not surprisingly, since it was an old house, it also had mice. I’m guessing for the most part the mice lived in fear and stayed clear of the mass of children running around during the day, but at night it was a different story. So… to keep mice from coming into the room where we slept, we put a large wooden board we had probably found somewhere in the garage across the doorway. It was maybe 5 or 6 feet long and 10 inches high. We were confident it would protect us and keep the mice out… because we thought the mice wouldn’t be able to climb over it. I know. My sister and I have laughed about this memory quite a few times over the years, although now, I mostly shudder to think about it.
I remember when Mrs. Lewis’ house was finally torn down, we then had a huge back yard to play in and sleep in. The same adventurous older sisters who had slept in the house (and with me when they let me join them) would get our mom’s permission and then they’d pull blankets off their beds and we’d sleep outside under the stars. We didn’t have a tent or sleeping bags, but I remember how black the summer night sky was and how vivid the stars looked back then, with no large city lights to blur their view. The nighttime also had its own distinct noises: semi-trucks on the highway (half a block to the south) and random trains (a block to the north) passing through town, along with the ever present and random calls of the peacocks just down the street. The air could be crisp and sometimes damp, and without fail if we made it through the night without an unexpected storm, we woke to our blankets damp with dew. Before heading into the house for breakfast, we’d help each other drape the blankets over the clothesline, where they would hang until they were dry enough to go back on our beds.
Our dad was forever bringing great stuff home that could be repurposed in some way and then we’d get to play with it. When the telephone company was putting up new telephone poles and wires all through town (somewhere in the 1960’s) he brought home several of the large empty wooden spools that had held the telephone wire. These spools were huge (especially to a kid) and would become our outside patio tables (although we didn’t really have a patio). I’m remembering 2 or 3 of them in the backyard with about 3 – 4 kids eating at each one. That is, when we were allowed to eat outside. We spent hours practicing our balancing skills, with the spools turned on their rolling sides. We’d carefully climb up on the inside of the spool as it rocked back and forth and then carefully attempted to slowly roll the spool along as we tried to walk with our feet on a much too small walking surface. Of course, we’d fall off of them far more times than we stayed on. And there always seemed to be one or two siblings who excelled at it and many more who did not. But regardless of what we were doing, we generally always had fun together.
Dad also brought home large empty cardboard boxes from the appliance and piano store in town. Imagine boxes large enough to hold a large freezer or an upright piano. In a kid’s imagination, the potential these empty boxes held was limitless. We would cut out holes for windows and sweep out the grass and stones that forever found their way inside, laying down rugs and blankets, and transforming it into a playhouse. We spent hours (or days) playing house and dolls, or dress up, and having snacks (homemade Kool-Aid popsicles frozen on a spoon, or freshly picked rhubarb that we licked and dipped in sugar), and sometimes even taking a nap inside.
Our cardboard days were truly magical and like lots of things from childhood, they never lasted long enough. Either it would rain and we would have forgotten to drag the cardboard structure inside the garage or under the eaves for protection, or just after so many days, the cardboard would become so weather-beaten and kid worn, it needed to be thrown away. Now, I have no memory of what my brothers played when it was their turn with the cardboard, or if they even got or wanted a turn, after we’d turned it into a playhouse. I just remember that no matter what they were doing, they always seemed to play louder than we did and they always turned whatever they were doing into a competition.
My brothers loved to compete… in just about anything. It seemed they were forever playing marbles in our gravel driveway or the alley, sometimes amongst themselves, but usually with other neighborhood boys. They collected marbles (and knew all the different kinds) and comic books (they could debate for hours over which action hero or villain was the strongest or their favorite), and they even collected bottle caps from pop machines from the various gas stations in town. They rigged a magnet to the end of some cord or wired device and with the blessings of the gas station employees or owners, were so successful through their efforts or ingenuity, they were able to redeem the caps for all kinds of Packer footballs and assorted memorabilia.
I also remember more than once when my youngest brother decided to run away from home. If memory serves me correctly, one of the times he was unhappy about the food or something ridiculous like that. That particular time my mother helped him pack. She didn’t seem worried or concerned at all. Maybe because he was back hours later…just in time for dinner. This was the same brother who used to find and carry all kinds of assorted treasures and still-living creatures home in his pockets. After several fright-filled discoveries by our mom when doing the laundry, she instituted a new rule. He was the only one of us kids who had to empty his own pockets before putting them in the dirty clothes pile.
Now it makes no difference if you are a child of 11 or you are simply a child at heart with a much larger number of birthdays associated with your name… summertime, if you aren’t careful and if you aren’t paying attention, will be gone before you know it. So whatever you do this summer, savor every single bliss-filled moment.
And in the wonderful words of Sam Johnson, “May your everyday be the first day of summer, and the beginning of a great adventure.