Growing up in the Midwest, nature marked the passage of my childhood at every turn like the changing of the seasons. My family and I took long walks in the nearby park in the fall and watched the red and orange leaves glide to the ground, then heard them crackle and crunch beneath our feet. We built elaborate snowmen as the winter blizzards dropped sheets of thick snow over our heads. We even strolled around the lagoon and tossed bread crumbs to the hungry ducks in the spring. But thoughts of the lingering summer sunshine continue to warm my heart and give me peace even in the cold darkness of winter, which seems to stretch on for miles in DeKalb. Illinois seems to come alive during those short summer months.
In June, the first blades of corn begin to peek through the maze of fields that dot the landscape. By August, the sun is high in the sky, and the nights are still clear enough to catch a group of lightning bugs coming out to play and sparkle across the horizon. My mother officially labeled these months “family time.” As a special education assistant at Clinton Rosette Middle School, she was lucky to have summers off. She made each summer a marvelous adventure for my sister and me, and one summer, my father found out that he had every Friday off. I saw my mother's mind spinning when she heard the glorious news, making a mental list of activities we could do as a family. Swimming. Zoo visits. Barbecuing. Museum visits to cultivate a bit of culture in us. And plenty of trips to Sam's Club to teach us the art of bulk shopping.
Like a mad scientist, her hair sprang up in a frenzied mess and she rubbed her hands together violently, her eyes bulging with that same frenzied excitement. "They're mine! They're all mine!” she howled. "Bonding” quickly became the key word that summer. It started off innocently enough. Every few weeks, we'd take an afternoon picnic. It was nothing too fancy, just sandwiches and a few cans of Coca-Cola neatly arranged in brown lunch bags and enjoyed on a park bench. It was a nice little diversion on a hot summer day - sweet and simple like the soda.
And then it happened one sweltering day in July. I sat in the kitchen trying unsuccessfully to cool my overheated body when my mother came barreling through the front door. In came a rush of hot air and my mother smiling ear to ear. At that point, I couldn't tell if the hot air came from my mother or was just the summer heat. “I've found the perfect picnic spot,” she declared, halfway screeching. “That's great, dear,” my father replied. "We can go this Friday.” This Friday came before I knew it. And the Friday after that. And the Friday after that. Before long, our occasional picnics had turned into weekly rituals. We'd pile into our gray Ford Focus, turn up the air conditioning and stop at Subway for sandwiches. I knew the uniform-clad Subway staff would be the last bit of civilization I'd see for at least three hours. As we drove down the country roads - feeling as if we were barreling up a steep mountain, thanks to my mother's treacherous driving - our car turned into an Italian eatery as the smell from my father's meatball sub wafted through our tight quarters. We breezed past farm houses and rows of cows, my mother's hands tightly gripping the wheel, occasionally jerking it from side to side while a devilish smile formed across her face. We were her prisoners, I thought, when we came to the opening of Afton Preserve, a little-known forest nestled in the middle of nowhere about seven miles out of town. As we settled into the picnic tables and spread out our feast, I could feel the sun's rays form sweat beads on my forehead. It had to have been the hottest day of the year, and even the patches of clouds couldn't shield the brightness.
"I'm too hot,” I complained. "And does anyone notice these bugs swirling overhead? Can we please go home now?”
My wishes went unnoticed, I soon learned, as we ate lunch under a shady tree and my mother talked a mile a minute. Then she slung a pair of binoculars around her neck and motioned for us all to hurry up. Like a pack of lions following its leader, we followed her on the paved trail through the forest. The path wound and zigzagged around a shallow lake and through the maze of trees, wildflowers and the occasional blade of grass. I wanted to complain, but there was nowhere to hide. I was surrounded on all sides by the sights and sounds of nature. So instead of trying desperately to drown them out, I found myself listening to their melodious rhythm. As we hiked to the lookout tower, I woke to the backdrop of an Illinois summer. The light breeze rustled the trees and refreshed my cheeks. Under the bridge, small fish swam and produced little ripples atop the water. And as we rounded the corners, I inhaled the overpowering smells of that classic country air. The quiet and stillness seemed to naturally induce quiet reflection.
Just like each new step completed a piece of the nature puzzle, I slowly pieced together my mother's master plan. Getting out and seeing nature was a fine idea, but my mother had other motives up her sneaky sleeve. I saw that this was my mother's idea of peace. We filled the eerie silence with the occasional chatter and laughs. We were together. We had no blaring televisions or loud music to distract us, and we could truly focus on each other. I even had some of the best conversations with my father, and he listened intently as I asked science question after science question. He was the only man I knew who could answer them all.
Those hot and humid summer days eventually turned into crisp and cool fall ones, and we were forced to say goodbye to our ritual until the next year. And even though many years have passed, the memories made atop those hills at the forest preserve are still fresh in my mind - and still thump with every heartbeat. They were so important to my mother. And they'll forever be important to me.
[Photos via flickr]