Meggie Brooks Chapters 1 and 2

Part 1
School Days
Chapter 1

I cried when they began cutting down the trees across the road. That was the summer I was six. I watched out the dining-room window early in the morning, and as the trees were felled, tears ran down my face.
Mama stood behind me, one hand squeezing my left shoulder, the other stroking my hair. “It is sad,” she said, “to see beautiful trees cut down. But it will be all right. We’ll have new neighbors to get to know. That should be interesting.”
I thought it was horrible, and I didn’t see anything “interesting” about it. The woods were being cleared, and there was a barren, gaping hole left where once there had been tall, graceful trees. I looked up at Mama, and she smiled sadly.
“Come on, sweetie,” she said, wiping a tear from my face, “we might as well go get ready for church.”
While dressing, I was unable to put the image of the poor, falling trees out of my mind. They were living things, or had been, only moments before. I wondered if any birds had lost their nests and how many woodpeckers might have lost their food from any dead trees, now gone. I wondered if squirrels or other animals had lost their homes, and where they would go. But mostly, I mourned the loss of the lovely, stately trees, whose leaves rustling in the breeze could be heard no more and whose shady canopy would no longer cascade over the road to meet the arch of the woodland trees still standing on our property.
Mama fussed with my hair, braiding it into two pigtail braids, and reminded me that there was still quite a bit of undeveloped land on our road. I sensed that she herself didn’t really believe these wooded lots would remain undeveloped for long, especially since this was by no means the first house to go up on our road in the past few years, but her calm demeanor was reassuring, and as I could not restore things to the way they had been, I decided to do my best not to think about it. By the time I got to church I’d managed to put the incident into the back of my mind.
I didn’t give the trees another thought until we drove back home and I saw once more the ugly sight of their cut-up remains lying about like huge and hideous matchsticks in the gaping hole of the once lush woods. As we turned into the driveway, I turned away, willing myself not to see or think about it. I would not look at the desecration. There was still the meadow that surrounded our own yard, and I would run over there and play as soon as I could to restore my sense of wilderness.
I felt especially attuned to nature that summer, having recently returned from Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Mama and Daddy had taken me out of school a week early so that we could go to Yellowstone early in the season, before the wildlife headed up into the cooler mountains and wouldn’t be as easy to find anymore. It was early June, and it had been a rainy year—so rainy, in fact, that we encountered floods and mudslides on some mountain roads. But it was exciting. I saw five real bears, many elk, buffalo, and moose, all in their natural habitat. Having returned so recently from such a magnificent wilderness, it seemed doubly sacrilegious that our own small wilderness was being forever infringed upon and cut back by those whom I could only see as soulless people. Had they loved nature as I did, I thought, they could never have cut down woods.
We had lunch that day at the Stockton Inn, a beautiful hotel with a wishing well, as it says in an old song. Mama wore a sleeveless, long, white cotton-knit dress with a tight smocked top that made her look like a Greek or Roman goddess. She always tried to dress us in similar styles, so I was wearing a sleeveless dress with a smocked top, too, only mine was yellow, with a flounced skirt. The skirt was the same yellow as the top with a print of purple flowers. We had lunch in romantic surroundings—the only kind Mama cared about. Waterfalls poured over stone walls into a small pond surrounded by lilies and little statues. After lunch Mama made me stand in front of a waterfall in the back where there were no guests, and she took lots of pictures of me. She loved taking pictures, especially of me, though like most children I knew, I did not always enjoy posing for the camera.
After we got home from lunch, Daddy said he was curious to find out how old some of the trees had been. The men and the machines were gone, so he and I walked over to see the wreckage, and we counted the rings on some of the big trees. Daddy shook his head somberly.
“Some of these trees are sixty, seventy, eighty years old,” he said quietly. “Not old forest, but still, respectable enough for these parts.”
I poked around on some of the piles of wood chips; then we came back and told Mama, busy at the stove making blueberries and dumplings. She turned and looked at us.
“It’s sad to see the disappearance of so many woods and fields around here, but it’s bound to happen. We came here, after all, to enjoy the peace of the countryside and the beauty of nature in Hunterdon County. Admittedly, we didn’t cut down trees to build our house. It was already here, built on what was once a corn field, and in my heart I believe there are enough houses available that people ought to be able to find something satisfactory or remodel what’s already there. But others don’t feel that way, and they have the same right we have to buy land and build if they want to. So there you have it.” She smiled at my forlorn expression. “Nothing in this world lasts forever, Meggie. We’re blessed to live on this road with so much beauty still intact, but others are bound to want to enjoy it, too. I do hope that the Open Space Committee will at least prevent us from becoming as built up as many of the townships in New Jersey.”
She wiped her hands on a towel and turned back to her work. Mama was always baking something, or cooking something. I can see her yet, virtually crawling into the cupboards to pull out her pots, pans, and sundries, muttering that she’d probably never have cupboards with Lazy Susan turntables or a center island, either, though the lack of those things never seemed an impediment to all the cooking and baking and entertaining she did.
It wasn’t that our kitchen was small, exactly. It was large enough for a fairly sizeable table that seated four—six with the extension—in the center of the room, and to my eyes the kitchen was airy and sunny with its large window behind the table and the windows over the sink that looked out to our huge two-acre back yard. It was, I thought, nice enough in appearance. The linoleum floor Mama and Daddy had replaced, and I especially liked the little green flowers in each corner tile of the light beige floor that blended with the green vines and twining tendrils of the sweet pea design on the wallpaper. I thought our cupboards, which were oak-stained to simulate cherry, were lovely, though Mama mentioned often enough that they were too few, were worn with age, and were not real cherry. Daddy disliked that the wood strip which ran around the counter and sink was chipped and faded, and he and Mama said the counter itself had seen better days. But all that was nothing to my child’s eyes. Despite the lack of counter space, new and convenient cupboards, or an island, my Mama turned out fabulous meals and baked sumptuous desserts. You’d think as much as she baked she would have been fat, but she wasn’t. Though she could cook to beat the band, she could also put on some enchanting little dress and go out to an elegant restaurant, making the women glare and the men gape.
At 39 my mama was still very pretty, with shoulder-length wheat-colored hair and blue eyes the color of the sky. Though she was five foot seven, she seemed petite because she was so slender. Daddy, who was the same age as Mama, was about the same height, and if Mama wore heels, he was a good deal shorter. But though not a tall man, Daddy never seemed short to me. His stature was demonstrated to me every day of my life, and I thought that with his fair skin and light brown hair he was the perfect complement to my beautiful blond Mama. They said I inherited the best from both of them: the color of Mama’s hair but the thicker texture of Daddy’s; a face neither as round as Daddy’s nor as long as Mama’s, but more heart-shaped; Mama’s pert nose and Daddy’s nicely shaped, full lips. My eyes were Mama’s through and through—large and cornflower blue. I considered both my parents good looking and would have been happy to look like either one, but they insisted I had been blessed with all of their good points and none of their bad.
Mama turned off the stove and, placing dumplings in two bowls, poured hot blueberry stuff over them and put gobs of real whipped cream on top for her and Daddy. She handed me a bowl of plain raspberries, which Daddy and I had picked the day before from our own bushes. I can’t say I appreciated Mama’s baking much—not then anyway. Desserts made me feel sick. So she handed me the raspberries, and we all went out to the gazebo.
I’d as soon have eaten indoors, but I didn’t balk. Mama adored the gazebo, surrounded from the center and to the right by pine trees, magnolias, and a viburnum bush, which made one heady in the spring with its spicy scent. Since the gazebo was on the back of the house, we couldn’t see across the road from there, so I thought at least I wouldn’t be forced to view the day’s devastation. The vista was open on the left, where one’s gaze could drift out over the lawn to perennial gardens, meadows, and the farm beyond us. Our redwood gazebo was twelve feet in diameter and built right onto the deck, which ran the length of the back of the house. We had wood benches, white resin chaise lounges, little round glass and resin tables, and one wood rocker out there. Mama could sit by the hour in her chaise lounge listening to the birds. “Shhh,” she’d say, “do you hear those beautiful robins?” Or, “Isn’t that purple finch exquisite?”
We’d had two purple finch nests built right on the outside ledge of the gazebo earlier that spring, and those baby finches were strange little creatures. They never made a peep, except when they were being fed—they were just these ugly, bald creatures that opened their beaks wide every so often and quivered in the bottoms of their nests the rest of the time. The mommy and daddy birds perched on a nearby evergreen whenever we were in the gazebo, waiting for us to leave so they could tend their babies, but it was Mama’s gazebo and her favorite place from which to listen to birds and see the perennial gardens, so those birds sometimes had a pretty long wait. Often, the mama birds finally gave up and came to sit in the nests and feed their babies despite us. That was fun, seeing the mama birds in those tiny nests.
Late afternoon turned to evening that day while we lingered in the gazebo. As the breezes blew the maples in the cool evening air and the little baby birds lay still in their nests, I felt a returning sadness around my heart, thinking about all the trees that had been cut down across the road, and, as Mama said, those that were likely to follow as people continued to buy lots and build.
“Those woods are home to the wood thrushes and vireos,” Mama murmured.
I watched a family of rabbits nibbling the grass around the star magnolia. “Won’t we have any more thrushes, Mama?” I asked sadly, having learned to love the thrush’s hauntingly lovely song.
“Not as many,” she answered. “Those types of birds love deep woods.”
I knew. She’d shown me a picture of a vireo in a bird book a couple of weeks before. The book said it was an “elusive” bird, loving to hide and difficult to find.
“If this kind of development keeps up,” I announced, echoing a refrain I’d heard from Mama many times, “we’ll have no countryside left at all. We’ll have to move to New Hampshire.”
Daddy laughed. “See what you’ve taught her, Lauren?” he said.
But Mama pursed her lips and agreed with me. “She’s right,” she said. Then she added, “Tom, some of those trees were even dogwoods. They didn’t even leave the dogwoods.”
They probably couldn’t tell a dogwood from a cucumber, I thought.

Chapter 2

For many weeks the drone of the machinery across the road formed a constant backdrop to nature’s songs. Huge loaders moved boulders and shifted tons of dirt. Tree-shredding machines came in and ate the huge, cut-down trees, spitting them out as sawdust. Dump trucks drove in and out all day with loads of dirt, their laboring motors sometimes vibrating our house, and their dumpsters banging and clanging so loudly it sounded like shots of cannon fire. Our bird chorus intermingled with the beeping of trucks, cranes, loaders, and backhoes in reverse, all day, for weeks. Mama and Daddy’s greatest fear was that someday the man who owned the five-acre meadow that abutted our lawn would sell it and a house would go up there and we’d have no more glorious birds. Mama longed to purchase it and keep it just as it was.
But she couldn’t, and so far, it remained as it was—a meadow overflowing with Rosa rugosa and thorn bushes and wildflowers of every variety. We went out to the gazebo every morning as early as we could to absorb the summer scents and sounds before the work crew arrived to drown out our peace and quiet, and we reveled in the beauty of the meadow as much as if we had owned it. As for the rest—the disturbance caused by the trucks and loaders—we did our best to ignore it and anticipate the day our peace would be restored to us.
I remember losing my first tooth that summer. I was eating corn on the cob one evening, and complaining loudly because it hurt my loose tooth.
“Here, I’ll cut it off the cob for you,” Daddy offered.
But Mama asked, “Tom, how on earth do you expect it will ever come out if you baby her this way? Just let her eat the corn, for heaven’s sake, and the tooth will probably be out in a few minutes.”
Of course, I cried. “I can’t eat it, Mama,” I said. “It hurts too much. Look at how loose it is.”
I wiggled it for her, tears streaming down my face, and she said, “Let me see.” She wiggled it. Then she said, “Yes, that is so loose that it would come out with just a twist. Give it a twist, Megan, and it will come out.”
Sure enough—one twist, and out it came. Daddy was a little shame-faced.
“Your mama is usually right,” he admitted with a sigh.
“I’m always right,” Mama answered smugly. But I knew that wasn’t true.
This tooth had caused them much concern. It had been loose for months, and my adult tooth had already come in behind it. Mama and Daddy were worried that my baby tooth might never come out—that I might have double rows of teeth, like Grandma Connie. Grandma Connie, Mama’s mother, didn’t have two sets of teeth now—I had never seen her with double teeth. But until she’d had them fixed in her fifties they were that way. So Mama was concerned about me. She had even taken me to the dentist, especially worried after our Hispanic friend Lily had looked in my mouth and said, “That has to come out of there,” and a friend of Lily’s had looked in and nodded vigorously. “Oh yes,” she’d said, “you need to get her to the dentist. That’s got to come out right away.”
So Mama, all worried, took me in as soon as she could get an appointment, which wasn’t very soon as the dentist was on vacation, but he told her to relax. He wasn’t worried about the adult tooth. Everything was fine. Now, here it was.
After dinner I took all my dolls out to the barn, set them up in the corner Mama and Daddy had made for me, and gave them a lecture on dental hygiene. Since most of these dolls were babies or rag dolls that had no teeth, I’m afraid the lecture was lost on them. But for the dolls who had tiny front teeth peeping through their wee doll mouths, I had some hope.
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I used to play in the barn by the hour. It wasn’t a working barn; Mama and Daddy weren’t farmers. Daddy was a computer programmer, and Mama, who had been an English professor before I was born, had quit teaching to be a stay-at-home mom. So they weren’t farmers; the barn was just a part of the property when they bought it. It wasn’t used for anything except to store Daddy’s tractor mower, all our bicycles, and a lot of gardening tools. One whole corner, though, was my play corner, with a table, play kitchen, old rocker recliner, doll cradle, buggy, and doll chairs. And my parents had made sure to heap piles of hay below the loft to allow for more rambunctious fun.
My favorite pastime was swinging on the rope from the loft into the hay below. Often, my good friends, Julie, Laurie, Carrie, and Ian, came to play with me in the barn. We all loved swinging from the rope and whooping like wild Indians. Even Ian, who was timid and small, loved to swing from the rope.
We were an odd assortment, my friends and I. I was tall for my age, with long hair the color of wheat, sometimes worn in braids or pigtails, but often left free. Ian, as I mentioned, was small and fine-boned. His head seemed large for his tiny body and his brown eyes appeared huge, staring out from under his brown hair. Frequently unwilling to engage in many of the romps the rest of us enjoyed, he surprisingly did not complain that swinging from the rope hurt his hands or gave him a headache. Laurie was of average build and height and had recently gotten glasses. Her brown hair was shaped around her face in a pixie cut, and her hazel eyes lit up at the mere mention of horses, for she lived down the road from me on a horse-breeding farm.
Julie was very little, with long toffee-colored hair her mother wove into perfect French braids. The picture of innocence with her large, exotic gray eyes, she was quiet and solemn, but not so innocent as she seemed. Her verbose mother, brash and heavily tattooed, was overly protective where quiet little Julie was concerned, so Julie made sure never to be swinging on the rope when her mother came to pick her up, and she somehow convinced her that she didn’t participate in this fearful activity. Carrie was as tall as I and gangly, with fly-away, shoulder-length, dishwater-blond hair. She was not pretty, with her irregular features and small blue eyes, but she was loads of fun. She sometimes got carried away, and it was most often she who got hurt when she tried to swing too far out or jump from the loft into the hay below.
I went to day camp that summer from nine until noon each day. When I came home, I often played in the barn, either alone or with my friends, but sometimes I helped Mama pick raspberries or just lay about. On other days, Mama and I sat outside on the glider under the pin oaks or in the gazebo. She read while I colored or worked on some craft or played on my swing. Sometimes I chased butterflies with my net and put them in my bug jar. I didn’t keep them long, though. I couldn’t bear to see their beautiful, fragile-looking wings beating frantically against the sides of the jar.
The birds that summer, from the meadows on either side of us, sang all day long, and sometimes, with the mockingbirds, all night long, too. Mama took her big telephoto lens and photographed birds on the birdbath or on the tops of the evergreens. In July the crescendo and decrescendo of the locusts humming their loud songs yielded a poignancy so sweet and sharp it was almost painful.
I recall that we had some hot, scorching days that summer—too hot and scorching even to play in the barn. July 4 weekend was one of the hottest anyone could remember. Our temperatures soared to over 104 degrees. Still, we made it to the July 4 parade in the touristy town of Lambertville. With its art galleries, antique shops, Victorian houses, and delightful restaurants on the river and canal, Lambertville beckons many to stroll the streets and shop, take a boat ride on the river, a train ride through scenic countryside, or enjoy an ice-cream cone while walking over the bridge to New Hope, Pennsylvania. That morning we joined the small-town festivities celebrating the Fourth of July, and that evening, though it was still stiflingly hot at eight o’clock, we nonetheless went to Tinicum Park, on the other side of the Delaware River, in Pennsylvania, to hear a symphony and see fireworks. It was awesome when the fireworks began during the 1812 Overture.
By the time the fireworks began, it had cooled off a couple of degrees, and Mama and I were comfortable in our sundresses. There must have been over a thousand people there, sitting on blankets, eating picnic suppers. We didn’t bring a picnic because Daddy had grilled salmon and we had eaten at home just before we came, but people had brought the most elaborate meals. It was stunning to see how much work they had gone to. Most of them burned Citronella candles, so there were no bugs at all. It smelled good, too, very lemony. Once the stars came out, the music seemed so glorious I just lay there on our blanket looking up, getting lost in the crescendos and rich harmonies. I thought maybe when I grew up I’d be a music teacher. Anyway, I knew I wanted to play at least three instruments: the harp, piano, and harmonica. I wanted to play a harp because it was so elegant, the piano because it was so beautiful and useful, and the harmonica because I had one and was already pretty good on it!
Sunday, July 5, felt even hotter than the day before. After Daddy and Mama watered their perennial gardens and new trees, they were ready to melt. Too hot to keep working, they called the Blanchings, Lily and Jake, and asked if they wanted to go to Ocean Grove with us.
The Blanchings were my parents’ best friends. Lily, a pretty, petite Hispanic with long black hair, had met Jake, who was a tall, good looking black man, at a church they both attended in California. They had married and traveled the world while Mr. Blanching took various computer jobs for a few months or years at a time. Having inherited some money from his grandparents, they were able to live this way, and they seemed to prefer living like this, though Lily maintained it was time to settle down and have a child. Lily and Mr. Blanching really loved me and often brought me gifts: little purses, candies, jewelry, books—anything that Lily thought would please me. They dropped by often to talk politics with my parents. I enjoyed their company and was glad they could come with us to Ocean Grove, although they were both really afraid of the sun and had covered themselves completely from head to toe. My parents found this amusing, considering they were from California, but it was a bit embarrassing as well. Jake wore a long-sleeved blue shirt, jeans, and a straw hat pulled down as low over his face as he could get it. Lily wore black leggings and a long-sleeved black top. They had swimsuits with them, but they made it clear they didn’t intend to go in the water until sunset, when they wouldn’t need sunscreen. I couldn’t believe they could stand the heat dressed like that, but they assured me the ocean breezes made them comfortable.
I played all afternoon in the sand, and Daddy carried me way out into the waves. I was scared of the really big waves; I liked the little ones I could jump. We stayed late on the beach, watching surfers ride the waves that seem to get even bigger in the evening, and we enjoyed a magnificent sunset.
Mama looked fabulous in a swimsuit. Though I didn’t pay much attention to it then, I remember how often I saw Daddy squeezing her around the middle, kissing her, telling her how gorgeous she was and how much he loved her wheat-colored mid-length hair. He admired her svelte figure. He liked her to wear cute, sexy little “numbers,” as he called them, and she enjoyed wearing them for him. But she had her notions regarding swimsuits and wouldn’t wear bikinis on any account. “No woman ever looks her best in a bikini,” she’d say. It was her belief that unless a woman had Barbie-doll proportions and lifted weights with her stomach, she’d always look better in a one-piece or a two-piece that covered the stomach. Daddy agreed. He said one-piece suits enhanced a woman; a bikini revealed all her flaws, no matter how few. But I wore a bikini, and they said I was adorable in it.
We went to dinner at The Pillars. Mama loved the ambience there—the plants hanging all around the columns of the porch and the view of the ocean right across the road. The only thing she and Daddy didn’t like was the loud music that assaulted us each time a waiter or waitress came through the bar out to the porch. Since that was every few seconds, or minutes, at the most, I thought the ambience suffered considerably. But Mama said the swordfish was superb, Daddy raved about his steak, Lily and Jake concurred that the steaks were very tender, and we all enjoyed the breezes off the ocean that helped us cope with temperatures in the nineties even at that hour. We were lucky to have been given the best table in the house—a table in the corner of the porch that caught the breezes from two directions.
When we got home it was late, and I went straight to bed. The next morning I had a surprise. A photographer had posed me peeking out from behind my flag at the parade on July 4, and there I was the on the very front page of our major newspaper, the Trenton Times. Mama and Daddy were ever so proud of their beautiful blond girlie, as they called me in their more ecstatic moments, and they collected papers from friends to send to all our relatives. I was pretty excited about it, too. I’d never had my picture in the paper before. A lady at church the next Sunday said I was famous!
That sixth summer was glorious—long, languorous, warm days. How I sometimes would long in later years for the total innocence of that summer, when the only interruption to my perfect happiness was the transient sadness that intermittently washed over me when I looked across the road to the cut-down trees or struggled to hear the birds above the noisy machinery. In the innocence of childhood, all the people one loves are equally innocent, and life is transparent and good.