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Coda and Refrain

by Laura R. Mauldin

I sang my childhood to the symphony of the rural countryside. My home was tucked into a dense patch of evergreens and conifers – mainly live oaks and slash pines – and while the trees drank up all sounds of cars, neighborhood gatherings, and yapping dogs, it was never quiet in my woods. Never quiet, never noisy—frogs called their melodies in the ponds that sprang up in every limestone sinkhole after every summer storm; cows bellowed harmoniously in the pasture beside my house; the incessant chatter of cardinals and blue jays and squawking crows added a percussion line. I knew by heart the steady, pervasive cadence of the chirping crickets – eek ek eeek, eek ek eeek – who sang me to sleep on hot, sticky nights; I loved the mournful calls of the quail or the bob white, who went by many names but made only one sound—a solo line added in some quiet, homegrown tune. And above all, I sang my childhood against the ceaseless, timeless, soul-soothing background of the wind in the tree tops. 

I spent the majority of my days in my bedroom in front of my three-story Barbie house, in my living room easy chair reading The Baby-Sitters Club, in my grandmother’s kitchen “helping” her, or in the barn with my grandfather “helping” him. But more often than not, I spent my days meandering in the woods that belonged to my grandparents, my parents, or to our neighbors. The three properties stood in a tight little circle, and they afforded me with at least 60 acres of unlimited access to all that bore leaves or nettles. In those woods, the song of my childhood swelled to full crescendo and sang its sweetest melody. Unlike the girls in books that I read, the shadows from the trees never made my knees shake and my palms sweat; the solitude and lack of human conversation never settled on me in the gut-deadening weight of loneliness. But then, I suppose I was never really alone. Even when no one ventured into the oaks, sweetgums, and hickories with me, I still had company in the trees. Sadness did not linger in the song of my childhood, nor could I have been called friendless or solitary. Very few children lived in my rural neighborhood (if it could even be called such), but a little girl with a big imagination and a friendly nature will make friends where she can. Soon, every variety of tree, every identifiable or at least commonly recurring weed or flower, had a name that I alone was allowed to use. Curly Sue for the lanky, hardy Waxmyrtle who grew in our fences, Mr. or Mrs. Hardyroot for the plentiful and unyielding live oaks, Laura (who of course was my favorite) for the Laurel Oaks, and even a small, purple flower that I have never been able to identify that I – for one reason or another – referred to simply as Fish. The woods held no dark mystery, no imposing majesty; I knew every branch, every stone, every pothole, and no one is too intimidating if you call each other by nicknames. I loved my woods, but not as a distant observer. I was a constituent, an actively involved member of the leafy community.

Then, my school friends and I became old enough to play together in the afternoons and on weekends. I always suggested the woods, but they unvaryingly chose the Barbie house. Shay couldn’t keep up with me among the vines and branches; Sarah was terrified of squirrels; Samantha absolutely refused to get dirty; and Candace never could get the hang of climbing barbed wire. Slowly, my friends the trees were replaced by my friends the humans. I never have decided if I came out on top in that trade off, but I was only a little country girl and my “city” friends soon had my priorities straightened out: plastic is always preferable to real life.

The years passed and the woods stood undisturbed. My days filled with other activities than leafy communions, and I fancied myself too cool, too old, to visit the Curly Sues and Mr. Hardyroots. I lied to myself, but I pushed back the nagging feeling that something important had slipped out of my life; the proximity of the woods allowed me to pretend that I still belonged in them. For a few years, occasionally (generally after some blonde-haired boy had broken my heart during the day’s lunch hour), I would take a sentimental trek through my abandoned playground; after a while, the underbrush grew too dense to transverse with ease and I became less and less willing to sacrifice my designer blue jeans to thorny vines and sandspurs.

I joined the Forestry Judging team for my high school FFA Chapter, but even then I identified dendrology specimens on countertops—I did not keep my trysts with my companions in the woods. I learned universally accepted scientific names of my long-abandoned friends, but I lost what I had always known about their personalities in the shuffle. I learned that Laura and the Hardyroots were actually of the genus Quercus and of the species laurifolia and virginiana,and suddenly the difference between them was not in their dispositions and ages, but a matter of crown symmetry, leaf petioles, and bark fissures. I discovered the friendly Sweetgums who had always brought to mind old men in brown jogging suits were actually named Liquidambar styraciflua, and suddenly trees with friendly faces became remote and alien.

When I left for college, I didn’t even consider telling my leafy friends goodbye. I had left my human friends with tears and promises to call and visit; when I stepped into my freshman dorm room, however, it was the neglected trees, not my lamented friends, who preyed on my mind. The sounds of people filled the halls: screaming almost-adults, feet thudding irregularly on the floor above me, furniture scrapping across the carpet, sirens outside on the street. The noise sounded so different than the harmonious wind in the trees, than the sounds of my childhood; it echoed and clashed—so different from the music that had stayed with me even in my adolescent oblivion, even when I refused to admit how much I loved and needed the sweet symphony of my home. Somewhere along the road to adulthood, I had exchanged the woods for Clinique and Coach, but although I had not listened for them in a very long time, the trees had always stood close by and they had never given up their songs. Curly Sue or Myrica cerifera – regardless of what I knew or thought I knew – the soundtrack to my life had always included the backup vocals of the natural world. Now I heard only the clamor and chaos of people just like me. No leaves, no crickets, no cows. Live oaks begin as acorns less than an inch long and grow to 80 feet high, 120 feet wide, with roots that reach and reach into the ground. The Hardyroots had taught me that long ago. I began life at seven pounds, and 18 years later I felt the size of an acorn. I was tiny, insignificant—no roots to anchor me, no song to sustain me, and the breeze from the squeaking fan above my head threatened to blow me away. I went straight to the room’s window, desperately hoping that Laura, Curly Sue, even Fish had followed me uninvited. I stood there and stared at the concrete and asphalt below. No trees; no symphony. The song of my childhood had finally ended.