Under the Oak Tree

I combed through the blades of grass with nubby fingers. A light breeze carried salted, marshy air up over the bulkhead and I sat at my mother’s feet and watched as the grass dusted grains of sand from my palms. She lay on an ancient chaise chair that was woven with plastic strips of different bright colors and had a permanent sag in the middle from too many rear ends taking a seat to watch the water. I could see, underneath the chair, how close her butt was to the grass. She lay still, watching me use earth to clean my tiny hands and I looked up at her. 

“Come over here,” she said, and outstretched her arms. 

Dutifully, I clambered up onto her lap, the plastic chair moaning in protest. Her legs were rough with stubble, and smelled like fruits and felt oily. Above us, an osprey flew circles. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I woke up with my dark coiled hair matted to my face, the sun still shining. My mother was unmoved from her spot on the chair, still looking down at me. She smiled. I pressed my hands onto her belly, the slippery soft bathing suit giving way to my touch. The world moved around me as I craned my toddler neck around to observe the still-moving water, the busy birds, and the clouds that glided across the sky. Above us, an oak tree waved.

That was my first memory at the creek house.

The memories continued to follow me throughout my life and made themselves known, in the same way the salt came up off the shore – the same way the rain told us it was coming on a summer afternoon. Each time I’ve smelled warm coconut – or even the pungent decay of fish – I was reminded of my childhood on the creek. The scent of instant coffee and the familiar warm welcome of butter on a hot skillet bring me to quiet breakfast mornings shared with my grandparents in old wooden chairs. Sticky linoleum floors hold me now, just how they grabbed at our feet as we ran through the house and passed window after window, each with a view of the water just beyond the yard.

Years of turbulence and darkness led me away from the creek, lost not only in the world but also within myself. I was told I needed to find my inner child and make peace with her. I searched, but couldn’t find her. Months were spent driving down to the old creek house that was no longer mine, or to my childhood home on the farm. I wandered into the middle of the woods – and several times climbed into the bed of a stranger. She seemed gone. There wasn’t a milk carton to put her picture, nor a poster to make asking if she was seen. My life force and essence of who I was went missing; I tried to meditate. 

I’d think of the swingset my brother and I had in our own backyard where I’d pump my legs so hard in the hopes of stepping on a cloud. Or my mind would go to the trampoline we haphazardly used unsupervised; We broke every umbrella in the house trying to fly away like Mary Poppins. I thought of the spruce trees at the back of the farm and how I’d climb up the branches and sit for hours in the hopes of seeing something otherworldly. I remembered my deep bedroom closet that I cleaned out just for a space to hide. Those were my little girl’s memories, I told myself. That’s where she lived. She lived in fear and in shadows. She looked for unnatural things. She was never a little girl. 

Then one day I was talking about my earliest memories and it hit me as clear as that one afternoon I recalled. The little girl woke up under the oak tree. She rode her bike almost five miles each way over the summer and mixed the salt of her body with the salt of the creek. She dried off on the float of the dock, on her back and arms spread wide like the black loons that speckled the horizon and waterline from their bulkhead posts. Her body became freckled and brown and red and she didn’t care about her body on the creek, because the water always held her up above itself.