by Mike Crawmer
Two recent news stories got me thinking about childhood, parents, and imagination.
The first story told how the residents of a small Vermont town are battling the new owner of a farm. The 62-year-old owner plans to build a house—his family’s third—on the farm, but first he intends to remove a centuries-old cemetery from the property. His reasoning: He doesn’t want his three children—all under the age of 6—to be exposed to the "sadness of life" inherent in an old burying ground.
In the second story—part of a series on childhood obesity—the mother of an overweight 10-year-old talked about how excited she was when a new family moved in down the street. The family included a boy her son’s age, a new playmate, she thought, someone her son could play with outside. However, in the 11 months since that family moved in, the new kid on the block has not been seen outside his house after school. Not once.
Dreadful graveyards. Addictive TVs. Mesmerizing video games. Fearful parents. Closed doors. Drawn curtains. Manifestations of fear, the biggest killer of imagination.
I consider myself lucky, in the imagination department. I grew up on a farm. At night I’d fall asleep in a big old stone house that creaked and groaned to the shenanigans of its resident ghosts (or so I imagined). Summers I escaped the ghosts, sleeping on a cot in the lawn under a canopy of twinkling stars, picking out with my fingers Pegasus and Cassiopeia and the Big and Little Dippers and wondering where the shooting stars came from and where they went.
Hidden in the woods behind the house was a large mesa-like pile of stones. It was probably formed when the fields were cleared a century and a half earlier for planting. But to us kids it was the foundation of an ancient Indian temple, now home to snakes and the skeletons of sacrificial captives.
In the barn we played hide-and-seek among the cliffs and tunnels we created out of bales of hay and straw. I quit playing that game the day I came upon two eyes staring back at me in an otherwise dark tunnel. It could’ve been a large rodent or my imagination, running on overdrive as I worried that the jerry-rigged bales would collapse and crush me.
My favorite spot for letting my imagination run free was the old cemetery on the hilltop. Several generations of the original owners, a family named “Strong,” resided there. (I was too young to appreciate the irony of the name Strong gracing so many tombstones. Death defeats even the Strong-est among us, you might say.)
The weedy plot was enclosed by a dilapidated split-rail fence. The oldest stone—a hand-chiseled, blackened rock—featured only a date: 1799. Small tombstones marked the premature resting places of children taken by diseases, accidents, and, I was sure, snake bites. The newest monument was dated 1905. A few stones had fallen or been pushed over. All the graves were easy to spot--as their contents decayed, the ground collapsed inward, forming shallow indentations. I imagined all the jewels and gold rings buried beneath my feet, but I was too lazy to do the digging required to retrieve them.
I’m forever grateful to my parents for letting us live as kids. It saddens me to read stories like the two cited earlier. All children should have the chance to discover the power and joy (and occasional fright) of their imaginations. I mean, who’s going to write the stories in the future if the kids of today are robbed of opportunities to imagine the weird, the wonderful, the impossible and the strange?