at the top of the driveway, at one time set into the privacy hedge, sat a rickety little wooden bench, lovingly hand-crafted with flaking sage-green paint & a parallelogram of a back rest. i used it to wait for a taxi to take me down the hill when we first moved to our hillside home & only had one car; occasionally i would see a neighbor, out for a walk, taking a rest seated on its one person seat, staring contentedly down into the valley or up at the sky, luxuriating in the cool shady bower. a couple of years ago, it fell apart (i like to imagine) and the gardeners removed it, but its footprint (its aura) remains & the gardeners continue to trim around the space as if the bench is still there (a ghost limb.)
now, however, if you bend down & look into the undergrowth you see that it is a perfectly fine hiding spot, a fortress of solitude, and if i were 10 again, or 12 even, i would crawl back in there & read a book, or plot the overthrow of the tyranny of adults or lay back & just dream about the day…
it’s possible that i would invite a neighbor boy (never the neighbor girl, places like this are gender specific) into my secret fortress & we would compare the relative merits of our strengths, our army of young boys (the neighborhood i grew up in was rife with boys of all about the same age, and only one girl) who was trustworthy, who was not, who had started to shave (no one, damn it.) we might even talk about the adults in our lives, but rarely, their lives too distant in time from our own to fully comprehend what could possibly occupy their imaginations (the world was still revolving around us at this point.)
from the age of about 7 until i was maybe twelve, i loved building forts in the summertime out of scraps of cardboard boxes, unused lumber, & other found objects (all covered with the obligatory bed sheet or tarp (if available, weather-proofing your fort catapulted you into the stratosphere of super-duper fort builder, the envy of all the boys in the neighborhood.)
the alley that ran behind our backyard was not much more than a couple of gravel tracks with a grassy hillock dividing them & it seemed to stretch far into the horizon no matter that you faced south or north (our house was in the middle of the block;) what it was though, each of those 4 or 5 summers was an endless supplier of lumber, cardboard boxes, half doors, window sashes, the accoutrements, the details that would make the fort of my dreams a reality. what i strove for each summer was to have the fort that all of the neighbor boys would want to hang out in, the “mom, i’m going over to robert’s for the afternoon,” kind of fort, you know. (of course, my mother worked so that aided and abetted my popularity–no adult supervision.) i don’t remember ever getting into any serious trouble though, either by myself or with any of my playmates.
one winter the snow drifts in our backyard (we had a 6′ wooden fence running the perimeter with lombardy poplars lining it) were so deep that i was able to construct a snow fort, burrowing deep underneath the weight of the snow. it was a brilliant fort, surprisingly warm & spacious, i spread hay on the snowy ground & my dog, a beagle named pepper, & i spent the better part of week playing in there until the roof caved in on top of me & i panicked, thinking i would suffocate & die, but i struggled & pushed & dug my way out, ending my fascination with snow forts with roofs (we did go on to build forts like igloos with blocks of snow, the neighbor boys & i (wayne, marty & their little brother, john.)
today, today when i saw that sacred little hiding place in the hedge and the flood of memory came tumbling down on me (the snowy fort first) i thought that we still build forts, that we never really get past that need to have a safe place to hide from whatever life is throwing at us & more than that, a place to read, to contemplate, to dream, even if it’s saddled with a mortgage.