by Emma Wilkins
On the first day of our country holiday, I almost had to drag my eldest son to the willows. I’d been picturing the fun our boys would have there—climbing from one tangle of branches to the next, swinging and jumping and darting and dropping. As soon as the car was unloaded, I struck:
“Let’s go to the willows! The fields! The creek! Let’s explore!” He said I could take his brothers, he would stay behind. I said fun was compulsory—no one was watching television or eating chocolate until we’d all gone somewhere and done something.
I took along some apples and biscuits, a jacket and a drink; he took along his grudge. I led them away from the car and down the hill. His brothers trotted happily, he walked.
It was a magical place in my memory; it was magical still. A shallow stream curved around wizened trunks and sunlight tinted light-greens greenish-gold. A line of poplars stood nearby, pointing to the heavens, and all around lay grassy fields, staring at the ever-changing sky.
He wouldn’t be won over though, not yet. “You know why I don’t like this place? The thistles and the nettles.” I suggested his shoes were the problem—swap sandals for gumboots, voila!—but also, I teased him.
I told him he was like the stereotypical city-boy character in novels, the one who complains about everything and everyone. To be honest, he is kind of hard to like at first. But never fear! These sullen types are ripe for development. By the end of the book you can almost guarantee a transformation—the other characters will all be fond of him, the reader will be too—and when he has to leave the place he’d so despised at first, he’ll realize what he wants now is to stay.
Perhaps, I said, we could cut straight to the part of the story where the boy wants to stay—now, before we had to go? But art imitates life, and life imitates art, and it was only chapter one.
A few pages on, I tried another approach, telling him about babies and bathwater. Letting out the water doesn’t mean you have to ditch the baby too. Could he dislike the thistles without disliking the whole place? Could he ignore the bathwater, and focus on the beauty? I don’t know if he listened, but later, at the creek, he was first in and the last out; the sullenness had all but washed away.
On the last day of our holiday, we packed up the car and tidied the cottage then went back to the willows one more time. The boys stepped and skipped and splashed, from rock to branch to bank, chattering and laughing as they went.
Eventually, we wandered back—it was time to return to our inner-city home. As I approached the car, he kicked off his shoes, scaled one last tree, and said, “Mum, you know the story you told me about the grumpy city boy? It actually came true.”
I wasn’t surprised that City Boy had ended up having fun, but I was surprised he’d admitted it. A plot twist, of sorts. What he said next surprised me even more.
“Mum, I think you’re psychopathic.”
Was it something I’d said? Had he taken the whole throwing-out-babies thing the wrong way?
“Because you predicted the future.”
“Oh! You mean psychic!”
If knowing your child well enough to know they’ll find water, mud, and trees irresistible even when they think they want to watch television and avoid thistles, then yes. I am psychic. I laughed, I hugged him, I laughed. “The end.”
That evening—in the postscript I suppose, a friend asked me about our time away. I told her the unsurprising, the all-too-predictable story. I knew she’d relate to the parent, being one herself, but also, she said, she related to the child.
I began to realize that we grownups, at different times—too many times, in different ways—had also let the thistles get us down. We too had robbed ourselves of joy that— looking back—had been there waiting, ready for the taking—all along.
If only we could see it at the time: glance up, pause, take stock, and change the story there and then, while pages still sat waiting to be filled. Perhaps in future chapters, we would.
About the photographer: Emily Sorensen is the Exhibitions Coordinator for environmental art at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education as well as a DFA Candidate at the Yale School of Drama, where she earned an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism. While researching ecological art and performance, she likes to go outside and take pictures of pretty things, mostly trees. Find her on instagram @mylifeisapoem.
I don’t know what I enjoyed better, Emma–your essay or your parenting savvy. Thanks for sharing both!
I found this absolutely delightful. I’ve shared it already, to both mom’s of teens and spouses with partners reluctant to rediscover the joys that come from the natural world. Thank you for sharing; the wisdom of this piece will stay with me.
A good lesson for us all. Wonderfully told. Nice photo, too.