When I look out the sliding glass doors that face my parents’ backyard in Northern Michigan, I see the faded wood of the deck, the small expanse of weed-laden grass beyond that, the grey-painted shed adorned with a University of Michigan flag in the back corner of the property, and the trees — pine and poplar — rising up to meet the sky. I also see the house on the left, a short way up the hill, that the neighbors built some years ago. Where their home is now there used to stand even more trees, towering pines with thick trunks that formed an enclosure with a pine needle-littered floor.
As a kid, that arboreal enclosure was more than pine cones, sappy tree branches, and pokey pine needles; it was my Narnia, complete with three separate tree forts — what I called tree forts, anyway. There was a proper entrance and a secret exit; prickly-bushed fortifications and invisible soldiers to carry out orders; heights to climb to and an “elevator” of branches to bring me back down. Fragmentary visualization is the only way I can see this magical place from my childhood nowadays; I don’t think I even have a photograph. It makes me think, as I sit here now at my parents’ kitchen table, of the impermanence that touches just about everything in this world.
I can shift my eyes down and to the right while I look out the sliding glass doors and see the spot in the shade where a green, turtle-shaped sandbox once sat. I sit in the sand, maybe five years old, playing with a miniature bulldozer, moving the fine grains from this place to that one. Then I stand up and mosey over to the yellow slide and swings to the right of the sandbox, and as I pump my legs, swing back and forth, I am reminded that one of the metal poles is not firmly planted in the ground. When I go up, it comes up with me; when I go down, it pushes back into the earth. A purple-frosted Pop-tart with cotton candy-blue drizzles materializes in my hand and I take bites of it from time to time.
Then a breeze blows through and the turtle-shaped sandbox and the old swing set and the purple Pop-tart and my five-year-old self whither away.
Now I am seven, maybe eight. My grandpa cements a newer, grander jungle gym-like apparatus in the backyard, a few yards closer to the house than its predecessor. Its yellow swings fly higher, its yellow slide is taller, wider, and leads up to a purple platform with greyish-tannish-colored walls facing north and south. One of the walls has a porthole, like a ship, and as seven- or eight-year-old me looks through this little window, the grass and the weeds and the dirt down below become an ocean whose wild waves threaten to sink me. I command the men to batten down the hatches — whatever that means — but it is too late; we are swallowed by a tsunamic tidal wave and the whole ship goes under.
When I resurface, I am nineteen, sitting with friends around the recently-installed fire pit, which is situated somewhere between the spots where two swing sets — one smaller and set back near the hill, one larger and cemented closer to the house — formerly commandeered the goings-on of my parents’ backyard.
My friends and I roast marshmallows, maybe hot dogs, listen to music pouring from the radio-cooler’s speakers or perhaps someone’s cell phone. I steal a skyward glance occasionally, quickly locating the Big Dipper, the only constellation I recognize with regularity. We are talking about our first-year college experiences maybe, reminiscing about high school football or baseball, the many times we drove out to the cemetery outside of town with the 19th-century headstones, purposely freaking ourselves out.
Gone are my pine-needled tree forts, my turtle-shaped sandbox, my yellow swings and slides; gone are the raids from invisible attackers and powerful waves that swallow ships whole. Gone, too, are people who played a part in making these things possible, like my grandpa, who died in 2003 when I was nine. But left in their wake are precious memories, a backyard full of buried treasure that even twenty-two-year-old me likes to dig up now and then.
*This piece, along with a poem of mine, can also be viewed in the first issue of Seen magazine, edited and published by my friend Julianna Roth.