The pond lay just out of sight beyond the end of our street; down a washed out dirt road, over a crumbling fallen tree trunk. One last push through thorny berry brambles and there it was, a small sandy beach lapped by sloshing green wavelets. Surrounded by a dense forest of sugar maple, oak, and evergreens, and fed by a tangle of streams, the pond was a world away from our neighborhood of tidy cottages.
It was here that I felt my first conscious gleam of curiosity. I was five. I would sit and watch with rapt admiration as the older children splashed and ran without fear. Every ten-year-old floating on a log seemed as brave as Peter Pan and his lost boys. The truly great ones were my two older sisters, Suzanne and Marjorie. Strong and beautiful they dared to float an old rowboat, christened the Robert E. Leak, across the vast ocean of the pond through a boggy marsh of broad grasses and cattails, to the enchanted Rock Island.
The precipitous end of the road served as a jumping platform for the gang of neighborhood children. I watched their display of reckless daring with terror and envy. Someday, I would be that brave. The water’s cool green depths furnished more than relief from summer heat. There were small painted turtles, tadpoles, and fish to catch. Shrieking with delight and horror, Suzanne yanked a drum-sized snapping turtle out of the water. Swinging from her fishing line, it wriggled and squirmed until it fell back into the safety and freedom of the pond.
The banks of the pond yielded sticky, brown clay we sculpted into grotesque primitive figurines that dried to chalk dust on our backyard picnic table. Meandering streamlets beckoned us deeper into the woods through a carpet of skunk cabbage to a “horizontal heaven” of felled trees whose interlaced branches made perfect nests for playing make-believe.
A cold snap signaled fall and the end of our pond water fun. School started. I was enrolled in kindergarten at the white clapboard school on the village green. Autumn’s color ritual began, lighting here and there small blazes which spread more each day until the pond was engulfed in brilliant shades of fire. The glowing forest lured us to play under its bright canopy. We kicked up the corn-flake crunchy leaves from which the spicy rich scent of damp earth and decay conjured images of New England’s ghosts haunting and hiding in the shadows. On the banks of the pond we piled the leaves higher and higher then lept into the fragrant stacks; giggling and rolling our bodies until our hair was tangled with autumn’s debris. At bathtime, when Mama combed out the snarls eliciting our loud protests and tears, we would wish that we had been wiser. But we always forgot the tug of her brush when the joy of flinging ourselves into the leaves beckoned.
The first snowfall came in the night silently altering the landscape we had so easily explored all summer. Through darkened glass panes, we watched fuzzy snowflakes drifting thicker and faster obliterating familiar terrain. In the morning we plunged into closets full of winter clothes and worked up a sweat donning layer after layer. At the open front door, we blinked and sneezed in the shattering light reflected off diamond crusted snow. Our snowsuit-bound bodies struggling to stay upright marred the pristine snow as we kicked new trails toward the sledding hill above the pond. The pond had disappeared into an expansive white depression fenced by naked trees, its crystalline surface hidden in pristine snow drifts. My father surprised us with a bright orange saucer sled. We spun crazily downhill in a heap of arms and legs and squeals, snow sifting into our sleeves and boots, snowmelt dripping down our necks. Daddy also introduced us to ice skating on a patch of the pond where the ice was swept clear of snow. A bumpy pattern of ice-locked leaves sabotaged my efforts to glide and spin in a graceful dance as I imagined I would. I spent more time scooting and crawling than I did skating.
The pond offered a different treasure box for each season, everything nature could offer to entice and teach. It was the whole earth on a small scale, safely nestled at the border of our front yard within easy reach of help, always safe and hopeful. The pond also taught hard lessons. A final one: adjust, nothing stays the same. A man started bulldozing trees and pushing dirt into the pond. My sister stood tense and angry, fists clenched, screaming at the clattering machinery, despairing over the loss of each tree. One man’s progress, a child’s cataclysm.
After only eighteen months, we left our Massachusetts wonderland and moved to a California coastal town. There were no ponds, no berry brambles, or woods nearby. But Daddy led us to new adventures: sea shells and teeming life in the tide pools, body surfing at the beach, hiking in the quarries and canyons of nearby brown hills. The pond gave us an appetite for encountering the small wonders of the world and offered us a key to endless joys anywhere we went. It continues to haunt me. Everywhere I have traveled I have searched for the magic I felt as a little girl sitting on the edge of that pond where my curiosity and love of adventure began. The ghosts of that New England woodland world continue to lead a circuitous route to my inner world where the magic never ends and the treasures of all cherished pond-worlds never die.
Acknowledgment: Thank you to Suzanne Snow Huff for her additions to this recollection.