by Laurie Baumgarten
By age five, I was scampering all over the island. A bit chubby, but sure-footed, I skipped around to different beaches, running full-bore along decaying seawalls, climbing over slippery, seaweed-covered rocks, and scraping my bare feet on barnacle colonies. The parental neglect that this rampant wandering represented gave me the utmost freedom to explore intimately this place I called home.
The island was really just a small cove on the Long Island Sound. It was connected to the mainland by an old cement bridge about ten feet long that washed out in hurricanes but provided the island children with a launching pad for summer dives at high tide. Our house was situated at the top of the hill, just past the bridge, overlooking the water.
On summer mornings, I rose early, pulled on my bathing suit, grabbed breakfast, and was out our front door lickety-split. I ran across the lawn and down our stone steps onto the seawall that led to East Beach, where countless Bell Islanders spent lazy summer days flocking about in the water like squawking geese. But on my way there, I would pay a little visit to my secret hideout—a pool of water hollowed into the large granite rock that formed the side of the seawall. I would duck down a narrow set of broken stairs, only visible at low tide, which protruded from the main walkway. These steps must have once led to a rope pulley, but now only a rusty and decayed metal hook remained. There, in that deep pool of water, no bigger than two feet in circumference, lived a rout of snails—my companions with whom I played house.
At age 72, I can only vaguely imagine how a five-year-old projects onto such humble creatures the characters involved in playing house. But I do remember carrying on conversations with these folks, taking their children for walks, probably complaining to their parents about how troublesome their kids were. And the parents probably reprimanded those children in tones I myself had heard often enough. Perhaps I played “dinnertime” or “bedtime stories” or “family fights” with them. For a precious few years, these sea snails were as familiar and comforting to me as my dolls and my cat were, and I played with them for hours! I did not mind holding them. I would gently yank them off the rock so as not to crush their shells. Then they would crawl onto my arms with their sticky, sucker-like feet, the very thought of which is a complete anathema to me today. Now, I avoid snails and slugs and other such gooey life forms as if I had grown up in the most urban and concrete of environments and had never been exposed to such slimy little fellows.
As the tide came in, I would take leave of my mollusk playmates and head to the beach, probably to drag some unsuspecting horseshoe crab out of the water onto the hot sand and watch it crawl desperately back to the sea. Finally, exhausted from play, lips blue from the icy water, leaving a sandy trail behind, I’d head home.
Laurie Baumgarten lives in Berkeley, California. She taught elementary and middle school in the Berkeley Unified School District for 35 years and retired in 2006. Laurie is married and has a son who lives in Los Angeles and works as a clinical psychologist at the VA. Since retiring, she has been active in the climate movement and helped create an interactive climate literacy curriculum for adults entitled The People’s Climate Curriculum. Contact Laurie by email for information on the curriculum. She also has studied Ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement) for the last 30 years. Her passion for this art form reflects her love of nature, which took root during her childhood in Rowayton, Connecticut.
Haha! Liked the contrast between then slimy playmates and now slimy untouchables! For another story–how did you (we?) go from one to the other? xxx
Laurie! What a fine writer you are,,,keep it up-a new project to accompany political activism, and ikebana (sp?) and whatever else.
i loved how you slipped ‘parental neglect ‘into your memoir. I am still amazed by this: for 3 summers my parents would take my 2 older sisters and me to Ocean City, Maryland (from Baltimore) with another family for a week at the beach. The first summer I was 4 years old. While we all swam out to the sandbar, my parents were smoking Camel cigarettes, chatting away, and socializing. No supervision, whatsoever. Boy, were the standards different then. Jane G (on an election day filled with hope and possible horror)
Love this, Laurie! Your descriptions are evocative, and evoke the freedom of your childhood days and your play with those gooey snails beautifully! Hard to imagine picking up those slimy things now–but I see from 5-year old Ian that he, too, likes those things…
Your comment about how your “rampant wandering” was “parental neglect” is also interesting. It certainly seems that way from today’s perspective! Letting a kid go to the beach unsupervised?? Today we’d arrest your parents! But our culture around this has changed a lot. Kids routinely had a lot more freedom in the past than they do today. I remember spending whole days playing with friends and walking around in a nearly forest–often by myself. I’d take a sled and be gone all day with friends. Were the circumstances so different then? A lot of psychologists today think we have, and are questioning the constant parental supervision –and totally “risk free” playgrounds –that we feel children require today. They worry that we don’t give kids enough freedom to take risks and make mistakes and to practice being independent. I don’t know what it was like in Berkeley when you raised Jessie, but Katy, who is now 38 and grew up in a village on the North Shore of Chicago very near Lake Michigan before she came to Berkeley at 11 remembers running around and biking unsupervised by herself or with her friends–and loving it– just as you did 67 years ago, and really regrets that times have changed so much that she feels she can’t give Ian the same freedom… She feels it helped her develop independence and self-determination. But would I let Ian play outside by himself even for a minute—no way!
What exquisite freedom– and the gentle contemplative nature of the child you were is beautifully real. Lovely writing.
Oh Laurie, how I loved loved loved coming to spend time with you on Bell Island! Some of my most cherished memories!