The forest was for me and my dad. Although by day he wore brown shoes he shined every morning, suits, and a knotted, striped tie, I remember him as happiest in the forest wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt.
This was my dad. A dad who went to work in a tan Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera to Household Finance Inc., came home, and lifted me on his lap to play horsy. A dad who brought home my mom after my little brother was born. A dad who bought me collecting cards with cardboard gum even when my mom said no. A dad who came with me on forest walks.
In the evening or on the weekends, my dad and I would walk in the woods. We went on short or long walks. A short walk meant following the brooks and looking for tadpoles. We might touch ferns or pick up smooth or colorful stones to take home. We also might identify trees: white and black and brown trunks with different shaped leaves. Leaves might find a place in my pocket with the stones, and when I returned home, I would make crafts with my mom with the items I retrieved.
Other times, our walks were more like an adventure. The aim of these walks was to travel deeper into the woods to discover new terrain. Sometimes we would identity holes where small animals lived and hear them under shuffling leaves. The sun setting meant we had to turn around and find our way back home.
One day, we managed to venture further than before. We were climbing upwards, and when we reached the top of the hill, an area filled with large rocks appeared. The boulders were different sizes and shapes, mostly colored white and grey. To me, we were the only people who had ever seen this garden of boulders. I imagined I was Jack at the top of the Beanstalk, and I was discovering the Giant at the top. I told my dad – “These are the Giants! Maybe they protect the forest! Maybe they have been here for 100 years!” My dad laughed smiled at me. I felt strong and I felt excited.
That afternoon, I tried to climb as many of the rocks as possible. Some had convenient places for your feet to fit into as you climbed; others had smooth sides with no way to amble onto them. Once I got to the top of one, I would victoriously put my hands up and shout, “I am on the Giant!”
Although later in the afternoon we had to leave, returning to the Giants would become a new goal of mine. It did not happen often. Many times, we turned around before the boulders appeared above us. But making it to the Giants motivated me to keep hiking through the woods, hoping before the day ended, I could climb on top of them again.
Together on this day, my dad and I disappeared into the woods. I felt happy, interested, and curious. Black and white dogwoods, pines, and maples. Chirping crickets, small movements under the brush, toads. Flowing brooks.
My dad taught as he walked. That was his thing. He named. He described. He explained.
"What are those?"
"Ferns," I would say. I thought it was a funny word.
"Yes. Are ferns the same as trees?"
"No dad. Ferns are ferns."
Beyond the ferns, the different trees, the scurrying underneath the leaves - there were brooks. Brooks were my favorite thing. The hike was interrupted by watching the water flow. Water sparkled over, between, and under the stones, branches, moss, and sticks. I'd balance on a rock to touch a tadpole. I would catch a toad and it would pee on me. I liked to dig, to gather leaves, to try to find a four-leave clover, and to try and cross over the water without getting wet. And sometimes, we'd find a little waterfall as the brook gushed downward over broken branches.
"Dad, how far does water have to fall for it to be a waterfall?"
Sometimes the things I said made him think. He'd scratch his brown hair and adjust his glasses. "Well, what do you think?"
"Enough to make noise at the bottom?"
"That's a good answer. I hadn't thought of that."
My dad thought I was smart. He wanted me to be smart. So, he talked about school. Parents talk about school with their kids, but this was his mission.
He asked me to write letters to colleges – as a kindergartener. To complete this task, I looked through our brown and gold World Book Encyclopedia. I picked Hawaii. To me, it was the most dissimilar state from Massachusetts - a hot island with huge flowers and coconuts hanging in trees. In big, traced letters, I asked for a University of Hawaii catalog because "I liked their school." I pictured the arrival of my catalog with colorful plants and animals. It never arrived.
During our walk that day, my dad asked about preschool. My school was called Sunflower School. When I told him that the teacher let the kids in our classroom eat sunflower seeds and mint-flavored paste, I could hear his mouth frown behind me.
"Paste! You ate paste?"
"Yes dad, with my lunch. As a snack."
He fumbled. "What did you learn?"
"About eating paste?"
Mostly, I described the songs we sang and the other kids. As we got deeper into the woods, I hoped we would see the Giants. But, tonight, perhaps because of the story about the paste that he had to discuss with my mom, he turned around. Not today.
On our way back home, as it became dark, I would chase after lightning bugs when we reached our backyard. I caught a couple in a jar for a night light. We put holes in the top, and I stared at them as I fell asleep. Back then, I didn't see a shadow on the wall, or fall out of bed. I just trusted that the bugs would blink, and my dad and mom, as they watched Fantasy Island, would talk about how pre-school teachers let kids eat paste.