The water was too low to go skinny dipping, so I left all of my clothes on.
I sat along the edge of the creek, the water barely coming up to my ankles. The creek was fed by a spring, and throughout the year would periodically disappear, earning its moniker “Sinking Creek.” Some days, with my parent’s permission and some days without, we would wander down to find it roaring. Other days it would be completely dry, and we would walk along it as if were a pebble covered hiking path, pausing to throw stones at the old oil can wedged between two trees.
My parents built their house on old Appalachian farmland which had been divided up into parcels and sold to professors from the nearby university and horse enthusiasts. Over the years, the forest crept from where tractors had kept it at bay, and slowly reclaimed the land. As kids, we were allowed to play in the forest only as far as the old fence line. There, we swung on old vines and built tents out of sticks. We listened for my mom calling us for dinner, and were reprimanded when we failed to return the first several times she called.
Below the broken down fence, the hillside tumbled towards the sometimes creek. I would occasionally escape there as a teenager, as I had that afternoon. Up on the hill, my grandmother’s mind slowly flowed away, and my mother frantically tried to swim after her. My father worked, and my sisters and I gradually and awkwardly attempted to form our own lives. That afternoon, I had snuck down the creek to rinse off from my soccer game, swim in freshwater, and to simply be alone. The last would have to suffice, as the water had not agreed to my plan for the day.
I can still picture the rock that jutted out of the hillside, perpetually covered in the leaves of the last fall. Below it are the boulders my friends and I would recklessly climb too high, never having heard of things like bouldering pads. In the spring, johnny jump ups and mayapples lined the path we would worn. A path I will never walk down again.
Years later, in attempt to be better stewards of the land we all loved, they put a geothermal heating system in their home, and along with it, new insulation. The installation was too thorough, preventing the chemicals in the insulation to off-gas. The exposure left them sick, and their home virtually toxic.
Ten, twenty years from now we will look back and wonder at incidents like theirs with the same incredulity we have at putting asbestos in our walls or lead in our paint. But no one could have foreseen the outcome. After years of remediation, litigation, and investigation, my parents learned that it was only they who were affected by the insulation. The initial exposure had sensitized them, and thus, in the way one of my children can eat a peanut butter sandwich and another can not, they had to leave but could sell my childhood home, along with its small stretch of forest, to another family.
My husband, kids and I went back home, or rather, to my parents’ new house, recently for my sister’s wedding. I now live in Montana, and hadn’t been home during the fall in 10 years. As we flew in above the rolling hills, I watched the rivers trace the edges of fame colored mountains. My children marveled as we walked through the woods and leaves fell from every tree. I told my husband that as payment for living where where fall barely graces the underbrush he must frequently tell me how lovely it was. He complied, telling me yes, it was very pretty. But perhaps you can never love another place as much as where you grew up. Or only once it’s gone.
I still visit the woods of my childhood regularly, this time in the form of bedtime stories. My children know them almost as well as I did, although their version is populated with fairies and elves who cast spells to help young ones fall sound asleep. Now, there is no sitting – only adventures. Like the sinking creek in the woods, on days it would choose to flow, we can only move forward.