Sally walked up the wooded hill behind her house, enjoying the absence of snow and her first exercise after the long, winter. She was partly meandering, partly searching for something, and partly wishing the change of the seasons would not be so predictable.
March always hosted the contest between aging winter and the fetal spring. One day would bring southwesterly breezes and flocks of northern-bound geese. The next would revert to blizzard conditions, and the ground would be sprinkled white again. There was no doubt that eventually winter would recede into the past, and spring display colorful victory banners over the hills and woodlands, but each year the battle was fought in earnest, as if there were no foreknowledge of its conclusion.
Sally’s son would be finishing school this spring and going away. She came here to escape the empty house. She had always said the three girls put together did not make as much work as Jeff, and it must have been more than a joke, for now that he was grown she found many unoccupied minutes each day. They were not so appealing as she formerly thought they would be, so she spent a few of them thinking back over the busy years of Jeff’s childhood.
From the crest of the hill she could look over the house to see ruins of an ancient barn across the road. It had never really been theirs, but Jeff had taken possession of it at an early age. It had waited over a hundred years for him to make of it a castle, an outlaw hideout, a fort where Indian attacks were repulsed, the Constitution Hall of a two-member club, and a space ship to explore distant galaxies. In his fourteenth summer, strangers bought the dilapidated barn and tore it down. It had been nothing but and eyesore and a firetrap to them. Jeff stood in the kitchen looking out the window on that terrible day, silent and watched while the walls came down and was silent for a long time afterward.
He and his buddy had salvaged some of the boards to build a fort in the woods, but it, too, lay in ruins now. They never used it much. By the time boys are old enough to construct a decent fort, they find themselves too mature for its fantasies.
Sally turned away and left the woods to stroll through a high pasture. From there she could look down on a sparkling run and the field alongside it where once Indians had made a village. There was nothing left to see, but the place held a fascination for Jeff. Each spring, after the fields had been plowed, Jeff would come home with his pockets full of muddy stone arrowheads and scraps of broken pottery. They had been a washday nuisance for Sally, but for Jeff were rare treasures.
There had been treasures of other sorts, too. He had discovered where uncommon purple trillium grew and had brought her huge bouquets. In season he knew where to go for wild strawberries. He had always been excited about his finds, always eager to share them with her.
She was glad now she had allowed him the freedom of the hills. He’d had his share of childhood injuries, but they always occurred at school or on vacation or in the house. He had always been safe here in the friendly hills, seeking only to wander about and enjoy the secrets they so willingly revealed to him. They had belonged to him in a special way and he belonged to them. They had given him security and helped him to grow strong. Now their timeless beauty called to him in a softer voice, drowned out by other allurements. They would always be here for him always welcome him, but they could not hold him. They practiced a letting go love that Sally both envied and feared.
She had not expected the letting go to be this difficult. She had raised him to be Godly and independent and he was. She was proud of that, but realized now that their relationship, like the path through the woods, was making an unexpected turn. Jeff no longer needed her, but she needed him in a real and curious way. He was the child of her youth the major undertaking of her life and he was slipping away.
The change had seemed gradual and non-threatening at first: a night at a friend’s house, a week at camp, and all the school activities that occupied most of his time. Then there was his first job, his own car, and his first real girlfriend.
Many times he had given girls flowers, but never the purple trillium. Many times he had taken dates out to eat, but he never gave them wild strawberries. Those things were special. Perhaps they wouldn’t have meant much to someone else, but to Sally they were of supreme importance. As his life became ever busier, increasingly aware of the great world beyond home, he left the friendly hills and their treasures behind.
Sally started walking back toward the house. Her daughters would be arriving home from school. There would be stories to hear, homework to supervise, and snacks to distribute. She looked forward to their commotion on this quiet day, but she stopped for a moment to look back up the hill, a bit reluctantly. She had a feeling of incompleteness as if she had been looking for something and failed to find it. Something was not quite right. As if a familiar tree had all of a sudden disappeared from the skyline. In the disturbing silence, everything appeared to be in order. She moved on toward the house, planning supper and the evening’s activities. She had to leave Jeff in God’s hands. She had to trust that she and his father had raised him the way God would have wanted them to.
Sally never found the strawberry plants, or the place where the purple trillium grew. She never found an arrowhead of her own, either, but it was not needed. Back at the house, undisturbed in a quiet room, hung Jeff’s shiny Plexiglas case full of them. It had taken all his youth to accumulate the collection, and they were safe there. They were precious to her now because they had been precious to him. Relics of an ancient way of life that once had been and could never be again.
Ruth O’Neil, born and raised in upstate New York, attended Houghton College. She has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years, publishing hundreds of articles in dozens of publications. Ruth spends her spare time quilting, scrapbooking, and camping with her family.