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Both heels of my four-year-old, worn out, hand-me-down tennis shoes were propped up on the tree branch in front of me. In my lap, I held the seventh book in the Series of Unfortunate Events, and a half-empty bottle of water was buried in the leaves somewhere down below me. It’s dusk and through the rest of the woods, I could see the glint of light bouncing off the lake that’s just over the hill. I heard my mom call my name and I quickly shuffled down out of the tree I had been reading in all afternoon.
I raced back towards our home and my brother and sister were sitting around the fire eating dinner already. My mom was bent over the flames pulling out my food. We were having mountain pies – a campfire delicacy – again. It’s the middle of summer and the temperatures inside our house peak above 100°. Without air conditioning in there, we would have been fools to heat up the propane stove and make it even hotter when we could cook just as well outside. That house was lacking a lot. We didn’t have air conditioning. That’s because we didn’t have electricity. We also didn’t have indoor plumbing, except for one shower that worked maybe a third of the time and a kitchen sink that was smaller than most of our plates.
It wasn’t always like that. I remember growing up in a house whose bathrooms were bigger than my new bedroom and whose garage could have engulfed the new house and a half. Obviously, moving the three hours away from there was a big change for us. Living in that big house included my dad, though, whose alcoholism chained us down but whose charismatic personality tied bows on our perfect little family, like we had no secrets to hide. Growing up like that made me lose my childhood. As the oldest, I was expected to behave all the time. There was no yelling, screaming, shouting, jumping, or running when dad was home. Always clean up after yourself and don’t ask him to do anything for you. Every man for himself.
Moving where we did was my first chance to be without my dad, and despite how difficult my life had become, my days were now far easier than they had ever been. Despite having to drive over twenty minutes to get to my bus stop, which was another thirty minutes from the nearest school, and despite having to scrape together quarters at the end of the week to buy a $2.59 bag of ice at the gas station to keep our food cold (remember? No electricity means no refrigerator, too), I was happy. Living with my mom, brother, and sister, I could be that kid I missed out on being growing up. At that time, I was nearing thirteen years old, but that didn’t stop me from letting myself go and finding peace in my youth.
Since that point, I’ve moved and moved again. There are new people in my life and I’ve succeeded far beyond what I ever thought I would. But every time I return back to that little house in the middle of the woods, I find that calmness again. I can stand in the middle of the driveway completely alone, and I can still see my sister laughing on the swing and my dogs jumping through piles of leaves. I can still see my mom fanning the fire and smoke gently swirling into the air. I can still see my brother climbing up a tree and hanging from the branches behind the house. It won’t matter how far away I move or how much more I accomplish in my life: being there will always bring me back to that state of humbled serenity that I had never had anywhere else before.
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