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Learning the Manner of Nature
“Would you like me to come with you?” My husband asked, as I parked the car on a barely visible, gravel road. We were so deep in the country that it was overgrown with creeping vines and tall grasses. His quiet voice seemed louder in the absence of cars and horns and busy people. The only noises to be heard were the wind unsettling crunchy, brown leaves and the rush of a familiar creek, hidden by nearby trees.
“Of course I want you to come, Matthew,” I sighed. I did not know what this trip would bring, but I knew that I would need him.
After taking a minute to collect myself, we began following a tree-bordered creek. A breeze blew softly through the leaves and hushed scurrying tree dwellers. For once the beauty of these woods did not give me a sense of direction; instead I was struck with the feeling of imposing myself upon a distant memory in which I did not belong. Walking through these woods as a child had been some of the most peaceful times of my life. Would I ever find rest here again?
We stopped when we reached a deeper part where the churning water appeared to reflect my inner turmoil.
“Mr. Jackson found me here. He always said I was toddling about dangerously close to the water. He figured my parents were just off fooling around or that I had wandered off…” My voice trailed away because the lump in my throat was growing uncomfortably tight.
Bitterness had kept me away from this place and Mr. Jackson for over sixteen years. I hated the fact that I was left in the woods by someone who might have been my mother, raised in the secluded country with no formal schooling, and then dumped by Mr. Jackson eight years after he had taken me in. It was difficult to handle, being given up as a ten year old, and I had turned to anger that had lasted for too long.
Mr. Jackson was dead now.
While I knew my tears would fix nothing, they seemed to be all I had to offer for his death and my years wasted, dwelling on such resentment. The forest, on the other hand, continued, undaunted. Life went on. Nothing changed. That is just the manner of nature, to keep on moving regardless of the past- to always keep thriving.
“I know that moving back to Indiana has been hard on you. Just because the man said we could come out here doesn’t mean we have to. We can leave any time,” he said, worry coloring his voice.
We could leave, but would my problems ever be resolved? Maybe I would discover something in what Mr. Jackson had left that would help me resolve my emotions. If I couldn’t do it for myself, I would do it for Nick, my son. He deserved to have a mother who was more concerned with his problems than her own.
“I don’t want to leave. It may be hard, but it’ll be worth it, I think.”
I led him by the hand further upstream to a narrower section and crossed it on a few mossy stones. I stood uncertainly among proud trees whose stance had not changed since I had last seen them. The sun peaked through leaves and branches, its presence mingling with shadows on my face. My emotions seemed to be like those shadows- mixed and changing with every step.
I had told my husband before about how Mr. Jackson found me by the creek and only knew my age and name from a little card inside a nearby bag that contained a few snacks and toys. Realizing that I was an abandoned child, he had taken me in for years. He was like the father that I had forgotten, always there for me, teaching me his love of books. Those eight years had been truly fantastic. What child would not love the freedom to run around in the woods and play with his or her imaginary friend in the creek all day like I had? But one day it all ended. He dropped me off at a police station, and I never saw him again.
The story felt more real, telling it in the very place that it happened. I could almost see myself running through the trees, giggling hysterically at Mr. Jackson who was chasing me and growling like a bear. The air was so familiar here; it was as if I should have been breathing this air my whole life. The story felt different than the detached tale I had reduced it to over the years.
We reached the part of the land where the trees and vegetation were reclaiming the area where an active quarry had once resided. Now, water rested inside and mountains of ruble enclosed the space.
“And if we walk around this whole thing we’ll reach the cabin where I lived.”
I couldn’t see it, so I wasn’t sure if it was still there. I explained how Mr. Jackson was injured quarrying and couldn’t work in the limestone business anymore, so he turned to selling vegetables from the garden. He couldn’t afford anything more than to build a little cabin out here from the remnants of the quarries’ derricks.
As I told Matthew this, I found that it was getting easier to talk about the past.
The walk around the outskirts of the quarry was a quiet one. As the sound of the creek faded, I realized that I was less tense. Talking about what happened was slowly untangling the mess of emotions that my past had created.
We came upon a small wooden structure leaning between two trees. I stopped a good distance away, perhaps in disbelief. I had not truly expected it to still be standing.
“Hey, you! Git outta here! No dumping, no trespassers, no trouble! I’ll call the cops if you don’t git!” a large man shouted. He came thundering from behind the cabin in dingy, grass stained jeans, a denim jacket, and boots that seemed to carry their weight in mud and clumped on grass.
I jumped at his voice, and Matthew stepped in front of me with raised hands.
“We don’t want any trouble, and we didn’t mean to trespass.” he explained calmly. My heart was beating hard and fast.
The man’s large, calloused hands relaxed slightly, and he studied us as he approached. Apprehension seemed to replace the anger on his rugged face.
“Ya’ll don’t look like you belong out here. You lost?”
He stopped and hiked up his pants over a large belly. I would have laughed had it not been for the seriousness of the situation.
“No,” I said, “I’m Rebecca Hiller and this is my husband Matthew. We just came out here to look at this, actually. The owner of the property invited us.” I gestured to the area behind him.
“Well, hell I’m sorry! I am the owner, Jesse Evans! We talked on the phone, you and me.”
He stepped forward and shook our hands and then tipped his baseball cap at me, grinning.
“So you’re Rebecca Hiller, Mr. Brainiac Jackson’s little girl! You are one hard gal to find, ya know?” He hooted with laughter. “Anyhow, I’m glad you could make it out here. As I said on the phone, he left you some things. I got ‘em stored up in my shed. If you’ll follow me I can take ya to ‘em.”
We agreed, and Jesse continued to talk as we followed him away from the quarry and dense trees. He explained that “the old coot” had died in his sleep three years ago, but he had just recently looked through the man’s books and found that he left them to me.
Jesse’s father, the owner of the quarry and property surrounding it, had allowed Mr. Jackson to stay on the private property for very little money. They had been good friends while they were both still working in the quarry. Of course, it was not active now, and people still came and dumped things in it, or swam around, despite the no trespassing signs.
“Here we are,” he said. Matthew helped him pull back a huge, creaky door to a barn. A few chickens ran out. There was some old rusting machinery inside and piles of hay stacked up against one side. We waited while he sidestepped through the aging equipment to bring out two cardboard boxes.
Again he tugged up his pants and said, “I’ll leave for a while. Let you look through by yerself. I’ll go ask my wife to set two extra places at the table?”
“Thanks for the offer, but we’ll just look a bit and go home. It’s about to get dark, and I’m sure my son, Nick, is missing us,” I said.
He nodded in response.
“Well, I’ll leave you be, then.” he said with a smile. “It was nice meetin’ you Rebecca, after hearin’ all the great things Reuben Jackson had to say about you. He was real fond of you, even when he was old. He came over for the holidays sometimes, and he always talked about how you was all grown up and probably breakin’ hearts. That’s what he always said, that you was breakin’ hearts somewhere.”
I didn’t trust my voice, so instead I smiled back tightly and willed my watering eyes to dry up before I made a fool of myself in front of this stranger.
After shaking hands again, he gave a small wave.
“Well my house is just over this hill. If ya ever need to find me, I’ll likely be ‘round here somewhere.”
My husband and I thanked him and I turned back to the boxes. Both of them, I realized, were filled with books.
I don’t know when I started crying. It was probably after I saw the heavily worn copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that he always read to me before I went to sleep. There were Dr. Suess books that were the first books I learned to read, and Anne of Green Gables, my long time favorite. The other box contained his books: An American Tragedy, Les Miserables, Great Expectations, and the Grapes of Wrath. They were Mr. Jackson’s most prized possessions in life- they were his life. He was never happier than when he was reading.
I picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and flipped through the pages. The inside of the front cover contained writing.
You are the sunshine of an old man’s life. I know I didn’t have much to give back to you, but giving you books was what I had to offer. I hope you still find joy in reading like you used to. I’ve spent my whole life in this quarry, but you deserve more. When I stopped being selfish and realized this, I knew I had to give you up, but don’t ever think that I didn’t love you, Becca, and your pretty smile. I bet you are an exceptional woman now. And remember; don’t ever get old and serious. People need a bit of nonsense in their lives.
I turned and hugged Matthew, a strange sense of relief melting with my apprehension and the tears came harder.
He had wanted me all that time? He hadn’t given me up because he couldn’t stand me anymore or didn’t want the responsibility like whoever had abandoned me the first time. He wanted the best for me and so he sacrificed. It was a strange thing to know, that my bitterness was aimed at a man who had probably been just a hurt from giving me up as I was, and I still couldn’t let go of it all.
Was it right to still feel resentment toward him? He was human. He was lonely, and I made him feel alive again. I should understand that and accept it and move on. Yet, I still could not stop myself from questioning. Why did he never find me? If he really cared for me, why did he spend his life in the same cabin and not try to make things better for himself so that he could get me back? If he had not kept me from the beginning, I could have had a normal life, possibly with a real family, siblings, school. Didn’t I have a right to feel bitter about that? I probably did, but just knowing that it wouldn’t have the same grip on me as it had before made me feel lighter.
It was too late for me to make up for the time I had lost. There was no changing the fact that resentment had controlled my life for longer than I should have let it, but I could learn to deal with this. I could learn to focus on the positive and not live by those things that made me angry and hard.
I could learn to keep going, just like nature. I would learn to grow like these familiar woods whose trees lived on, year after year. Taking a deep breath, I let go of my husband and wiped at my tears.
Without a word we began our trip back, past the cabin, around the quarry, down the creek to our car. I noticed that even with the creek still running, the birds continuing to speak to one another from tree to tree, and the wind blowing branches against branches, everything seemed quieter.