I had a toadApril 7, 2011
Toads, salamanders, turtles, tiny lobster-like crayfish and many other critters made my acquaintance during summer adventures. I loved the critters (great-great grandmother Dodie’s word) as much as I loved the adventures.
I also loved pretty dresses, white lace anklets and shoes, but despite Grandma Beanie’s best efforts to teach me I had difficulty behaving like a young lady. Everything about me was built to crawl on the ground, to dig in the dirt and climb in the trees, to run so fast that the wind would plaster my pixie-cut hair to my head like a yellow helmet.
In my pockets I was likely to have rocks and insects. In my shiny red patent leather purse with the golden chain and clasp I kept my marbles—the aggies, puries and cats eyes, the steelies and big oily shooters. Among them would also be coins, BBs, slugs, wooden nickels and once, an interesting thing I found growing in the yard that was pink, white and green. I stuck it in my purse after grabbing it out of the yard on my way to school. That was a bad idea. My interesting find was a dog stinkhorn, a member of the pallaceae family of fungi whose sticky spore masses exude odors that defy description, and more so after spending a day in a 7-year-old’s red patent leather purse.
After experiencing that fetid odor I didn’t pick any more stinkhorns, but I did capture at least one toad a week. They could be found (and still can be) close to the perimeter of the house, burrowed backward into the soft earth with only their nostrils discernible among the leaf and grass litter. I liked feeling their bumpy skin and their little toes wrapped in tiny hugs around my fingers.
Grandma Beanie laughed about the marbles in my purse. She laughed heartily when I stole Johnny and the big boys’ baseball and ran through the neighborhood and through the house at full throttle with them chasing me, because they wouldn’t let me play. She tolerated holes torn into knees of my pants; torn lace hanging off of my gray socks that had been white when I donned them; scuffed Mary Janes that would never be shiny again; and white parts of my dresses soiled with only God knew what. She tried to find dresses with no white collars or sleeves for school, but most had something white—I was happy because I loved white.
She never laughed about my critters and I know I drove her crazy, but I really didn’t mean to do that.
The toad that got away had been under my bed, a sleeping guest for the night before my 8th birthday. I had tucked him into a Mason jar with sticks and leaves because I hadn’t been able to find a lid and was worried that the inside of the jar would become too hot if I did use a lid. I told the toad to stay so we could play the next day. The next morning I saw only sticks and grass in the jar. For a moment my mind wanted to study the fact that the jar was in the upright position (how did that toad get out of that jar without knocking it on the side, and which brother might have aided the toad’s escape), but there was no time for that. A critter missing in the house was huge trouble and the only complete thought I formed other than Grandma Beanie was going to kill me was, “Uh Oh.”
When I couldn’t find the toad in my room, I dressed and looked all over the house. I still couldn’t find him, and headed out to play under the cherry tree in the back yard. Many of my summer days were spent sitting under its branches playing with Barbie dolls, reading, and dreaming. I felt safe there.
Through the magical power of the minds of the very young, I became occupied with something else and forgot about the toad and Grandma Beanie. I adore the magical thinking of childhood—the ability to tune out all bad things and focus completely on something fun or fascinating, if only for a little while. I wish I could somehow collect that magic and give it as just because gifts.
With the toad temporarily forgotten, I was thinking of sitting on Grandpa John’s lap and blowing out candles during our birthday party later (I had been born on Grandpa John’s birthday) when I heard Grandma Beanie scream, “Jan!”
Before I could reach the door, she screamed again, “JAN!!” It had to be the toad, and she always knew a critter in the house meant that I had been around.
When I entered the house I saw both Grandma Beanie and the toad near the living room door, staring (glaring?) at each other. I grabbed the toad and was under the cherry tree before Grandma Beanie could say another word. I wasn’t sure who had been more upset, Grandma Beanie or the toad. It’s a good thing she never encountered the stinkhorn in my purse. That couldn’t possibly have gone well.
All of those memories might have faded were it not for not for the ancient-looking cherry tree, with gnarled branches pawing at the sky and sap running from the joint in the center of the two main limbs. It looked like a creature springing from the earth and reaching toward the sky in supplication, or rage.
The cherry tree fell in a storm later that summer. Split down the middle it crashed to the earth in two partially exploded sections, exposing the secret it had been hiding—it was rotted internally from top to bottom. Staring into that dark emptiness caused an uneasy stirring in my soul that I didn’t fully define until decades later, when I read a similar story in Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. I was astonished to see my story in the pages of her epic book.
I recall a feeling of despair that seemed too intense for the loss of a tree. Today I might call that feeling a sense of foreboding. It had to do with what we see and what we can believe, and how much decay pervades everything in our lives. At what point does decay so overwhelm a structure that it can never regain its strength? We all began to learn that lesson shortly after the safe haven under the branches of the cherry tree disappeared.