Last Child on the River

We floated homemade skimboards across a chest-high channel into Boone Creek. That was the entrance to our after school and weekend reality. Park on the side of the lane and rescue the stashed boards from the brush, then spend the hours through sunset cruising atop what seemed an endless perfect sheet of water–water being the upside to growing up on the Eastern Shore.

The thing that takes me back there most quickly is watching the girls experience all the same things I loved.

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Seeing them on the water, exploring beaches, hunting for minnows, crabs, shells, sea glass, and found treasure. There is a simplicity that seems universal.

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The built world fades away.

We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist. – Richard Louv, “Last Child in the Woods.”

These are the experiences I never want to stop having with the girls–when they are outside with friends, family, other kids, adults, lost in time and fun on a beach, on a river, or in the woods.

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The pictures here speak louder and more clearly than my words, which is as it should be. It’s a visual and tactile world. It’s a world we found as kids, discovered as if we were the first to come across it.

Prize the natural spaces and shorelines most of all. because once they’re gone, with rare exceptions, they’re gone forever. In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of chapparal, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience. – Richard Louv

There is something to being outside on the water. There is something to watching the girls discover it with their friends, and seeing it become a part of who they are.

But in the end, and to the girls’ laughter,  those experiences just as easily beg the question of who is the child on the river?

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Growing Up Goonies

A 20-pound Siamese cat slept in the crib with me when I was a baby. I didn’t seem to mind, and neither did my parents. I don’t think it sucked the life out of me, as wives’ tales go.

I spent a good part of the summer days of my first 10 years in a several-acre marsh behind our across-the-street neighbors’ house. We built trails, forts, bridges, found rusty muskrat traps, played war, and brought home mud, sticks, cuts, and ticks.

When my world expanded beyond the marsh and our dead-end street, it was into Oxford by bike. And once I got the okay to ride uptown, I don’t think my mom saw me from morning to dinner. There were no cell phones or text messages. It wasn’t a far bike ride home, and if I needed anything I could call from a friend’s house. I don’t think she was particularly worried.

I watch my girls growing up now, in Oxford half of their time, and 14-year-old Anna riding her bike uptown to find friends, to go swimming at the Strand or hang out at the park, or go to the creamery for ice cream. It’s a newer found freedom for her, one I had already known for a few years at her age. It makes me feel good to see her coming into her own.

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This spring, The Washington Post ran an article that got me thinking a lot about how many of us grew up in the 1970s and 80s. The author’s reminiscences come after a question by his eight-year-old son while watching the movie, “The Goonies.”

“Where are their parents?” the kid wondered.

It sends him into a reflection on the differences between what it was like to grow up then versus now. How now all play time is scheduled, whereas our group of friends in Oxford would just ride our bikes and see who we could find. Our days were mostly unstructured and largely up to us.

When I hear, “I’m bored,” from one of the girls, my preferred response to give is, “So what are you going to do about that?” At 14 and 11, they can unseat their own boredom. They can use their brains and bodies to come up with adventures. At their ages, we were largely put outside and told to go play.

Having said that, I have always been and am still quick to play–ride bikes up town, play bocce in the yard, pass the lacrosse or field hockey ball, put the paddleboard in the river. I love sharing that time with them.

There are about as many different parenting styles as there are parents. I don’t think one is better or worse than another, just different. I am far from father of the year (though I have seen winners of that distinction based on their t-shirt or coffee mug), I struggle, second guess, worry, question, and frequently don’t get it right. But I see the people the girls are becoming, how they treat people, the grades they get in school, how they laugh and have fun, and I am grateful that sometimes things sink in for them.

One of the goals of being a parent, at least for me, is to raise girls who grow up to be good, thoughtful, caring, compassionate, passionate, independent, creative people. Among the most valuable things my parents gave to me, was/is being able to fall down, get bruised or scratched, get the wind knocked out of me (figuratively, but sometimes literally), and to be able to get up, dust myself off, put myself back together as best I can, and keep going or get back at it. Unfortunately, I still seem to fall down plenty.

Some of that resilience comes from having to figure things out for yourself/themselves. Learning that their own creativity is the key to getting rid of boredom. And learning that sometimes boredom is okay, resting, and not having every day over-scheduled with ten sports teams, music lessons, scouts, and whatever else can be fit into waking hours.

Maybe a lesser examined idea of parenting is the notion that parents should also show their kids that there is more to being a father or mother than simply parenting; that grown-ups (and parents) have jobs, hobbies, passions, adventures, many of which involve kids, but some of which don’t. We are unscrewing a whole new can of worms with that notion, so let’s leave that be for now.

As a father, there is no greater pleasure than watching, and being a part of, Anna and Ava succeeding at something–whether making Principal’s Honor Roll, or scoring a goal, or being there for a friend, or creating art, or making a good choice, or being all smiles and laughs and making new friends on the dance floor at a wedding.

Growing up is different for the girls than it was for my grandfather (the dude sitting amongst the oyster shells above, circa 1905). Oxford is a different town, parenting is different, and being a kid is different. There are worries now that hadn’t taken shape 100 or 50 or 25 years ago.

But I’d like to think that there is still some magic and adventure that the girls can find for themselves. And while I hope that doesn’t entail running from criminals, getting stuck in underground caves, or involving the police; maybe there are figurative treasure maps and One-Eyed Willy still smiles and winks at kids today.

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