My proper but mischievous grandmother had one firm rule about cussing: If you must do it, do it in the barn. I believe now that her unspoken message was “animal behavior belongs with the animals,” but we didn’t hear that subtext back then. We just thought it a tantalizing and dangerous invitation. Of us seven girls, I only remember one who regularly took Grandma up on that offer. “Dang it,” the girl-whose-name-I’m-not- telling-you would whisper, when she just couldn’t take the pressure of being seven anymore. Sometimes I overheard her. Sometimes I didn’t have to. She’d come moseying out of the barn with that satisfied look on her face, and I’d know the old building had stripped her of all her troubles.
I spent the majority of my growing-up summers living on my grandparents’ farm. And I wasn’t alone. Whether my grandparents extended the invitation to bless us or to bless our parents didn’t much matter. We seven cousins packed our bags the first day of summer vacation, hit the farm running, and didn’t look back until September started making noise.
When the sun broke through our dreams and drove us from our beds, we girls would gulp down breakfast, yank on our cowboy boots, and head for the barn. We ventured out now and then, of course — to chase cows, climb trees, ride ponies, and beg Grandma for a cup of sugar for dipping rhubarb stalks — but our home base was Grandpa’s barn. To this day, whenever I walk into a barn (and I do, every chance that presents itself), all I have to do is close my eyes and draw in a big breath, and I’m instantly short again. The perpetual dust inside drifts through a sunbeam like miniature snowflakes, I’m surrounded by the heavenly tang of manure, and I can feel and hear the stomp of cow feet or horse feet or girl feet slapping the concrete floor.
Our favorite thing to do in the barn was to climb up to the hay loft and make mazes with the bales. It took all fourteen of our skinny little no-muscle arms to lift and stack those bales, but unity of purpose kept us grunting and puffing. We’d take a whole morning to create the perfect hay maze, then spend the rest of the day hiding around corners and trying to scare one another.
Grandpa let us sweep the broken bales and loose hay out the window. When enough had accumulated in a heap below that second floor window, we’d jump. The worse part of growing up was saying good bye to that rush. There’s little in the adult world that offers the same freedom as leaping from a second floor window. For just a moment there, you and your sixty-five pounds don’t belong to earth.
One summer day, while preparing for a jump, my middle sister Megan took off her spanking-new, bright green tennis shoes and set them off to one side of the window. If her plan was to spare her new shoes an afternoon of dirt, she didn’t think it through. After repeatedly jumping in the hay, running over the grass and across the dirt path and up the grimy stairs to repeat her performance, the feet she planned to plunge back into those new shoes were beyond filthy. But she never got the chance to dirty her footwear. One shoe went missing. Though we looked high and low and everywhere in between, though we moved hay bales and checked corners and took a pitch fork to the pile outside, we never found that second green tennis shoe. No one ever found that shoe. I like to think a family of klepto-crazed field mice lined up while we were giggling in the pile of hay below and dragged that green shoe down a secret hole. In my best imaginings, it became a mice family heirloom … and the story, a legend.
A piece of my sister lingered in that barn, long after she outgrew hay jumping and pony rides. And that’s just how it goes when you’ve sojourned in a place. Whether we plan to or not, we leave pieces of ourselves wherever we travel. Those little markers, little breadcrumbs, show we’ve been this way.
I hope you’re conscious of the pieces you’re leaving behind today. Someday, someone will hold up that breadcrumb and tell the story of you. Make sure it’s a good one.