I craned my neck to see the bird high in the treetop canopy. "I know that call, but I'm not totally sure--what kind of bird is it?" Actually, I thought it was a cardinal, but I didn't want to sound like an idiot, so I kept that tidbit of information to myself. He continued singing. "I wish my mother was here, she would know exactly who is serenading us." Then he took off, a blur of red crossing the winding river. "Yes!" I was right. A beautiful, red cardinal in the forest, just like the ones I loved as a child in the woods near Fairfield, Texas. In fact, most everything today reminded me of childhood woodland explorations. My grandparents lived on a farm in Freestone County. They owned more than 200 acres and we rambled over almost all of it. Sandy paths, wildflowers, towering oaks and petite dogwoods in bloom, all of these were part of my childhood.
Summer days we often started our explorations poking around the stock tanks. Sometimes we'd take along cane poles for a little fishing. I was never really any good at it, but somehow at that age I was also completely unafraid of the potential terrors lurking in the high brush near the water. On one occasion, my cousin, Diana, hooked a water mocasin on her line. Luckily, all of my uncles are good old Texas boys and Uncle Carlton, pistol at the ready, quickly dispatched that critter. Thank goodness, we encountered no cotton-mouths today.
Most of our childhood rambles though, took place in the woods. We chased an armadillo through the trees once (I couldn't believe how fast they can run) and spent many quiet times watching deer feed in forest meadows. Squirrels were our constant companions, chattering from every available branch, and we saw the tracks of many other forest neighbors. And birds.....they were everywhere. Cardinals, all kinds of warblers, sparrows, magnificent red-tailed hawks, squawking blue-jays, and the plaintive sounds of the whip-poor-wills. I was never a big fan of buzzards, those big black vultures, but I loved all of the others.
The plants fascinated me as much as the animals. Dogwoods in bloom are one of the most beautiful sights in east Texas. Redbud trees liven the forest with their many shades of pink, and all the tiny flowers on the forest floor are an endless treasure. You have to look closely to discover the tiny violets in bloom early in the spring, but they're worth the effort. Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, Mexican Hat and other wildflowers bloom in the sunny meadows, but others flower in the shade, along winding paths, twining through the trees.
You can eat well in the forest, too. Grapes grow in luscious clusters, but they're tart; you have to take them home for jam, jelly and grape juice. Eat the dewberries off the vines though, they're delicious. Sometimes you can find figs in the forest, and other yummy treats. Don't try the mushrooms unless you're an expert; some of them are poisonous. My grandmother picked greens called poke and they're delicious too, but don't try them without experienced guidance either, because they can be toxic as well. (I'm not an expert, and without my grandmother, I've given up poke salad.)
Of course, all the memories of place connect directly to my feelings about family. I was so blessed to have Nannie and Papa and their farm. I have 40 first cousins, and groups of us roamed those woods hour after hour, day after sultry day, throughout our childhoods. We forged bonds of love for each other and for the beautiful creations of God. I can't imagine a more idyllic childhood than one spent exploring the sun-dappled forest on a summer day in Texas.
Nannie and Papa have passed away now, and their farm was sold (dividing land among 12 children was not really workable). Luckily, the new owners have given permission for us to ramble around the property occasionally. But, it's not really the same; the people are different and Nannie and Papa aren't there on the front porch of the old farmhouse. It's gone, too, so I revisit it all in memory now. Today was a wonderful look back, a different way of returning with new "family" to a beloved place in my heart.