At the far southern end of our family farm, stood an old weeping willow tree. I don’t know why it was there alone, so far from anything else. Perhaps it was the presence of the stream which flowed next to its roots. Maybe in the past a small house had stood there. The tree had a broad grey trunk which was knarly and split. The cracks formed proper foot and handholds so it was easily scaled. Three large branches came off from a center crotch, where I could easily sit and survey my kingdom.
On hot summer days, I would crawl out on the low branch which hung over the stream and watch the water slide silently by over the dark green moss. I imagined myself hanging in a hammock on a deserted island somewhere, far from the dullness of my southern Idaho life. Over the years I collected cast off pots and pans to cook imaginary meals. These were stored high up in the tree along with my collections of rocks, shells, and bones. I even had a pair of thongs hidden in a knothole so I could wade in the icy stream without cutting my feet on the stones which lined its bottom. Part of the year the area around the tree was green and grassy, and I would lay there watching puffy white clouds scud across the azure sky.
I don’t remember when I first started going there alone, but I must have been young, maybe eight or nine. I would take the half mile walk down the gravel main road, cut across the dirt tractor path and scurry under the fence to my imaginary kingdom. Other days when I wanted a longer journey I would travel east on the mile road to the longer tractor path between the fields of wheat. I would walk along kicking up dust to the end and then traverse the fields to another fence which I could easily step over into my secret world. If I went that way I had to jump the stream which seemed to appear from nowhere under the fence to get to my secret hideaway.
I nicknamed my place Gilligan’s Island. There I would play out the various roles of Gilligan, the Professor and Mary Ann. When I tired of my island, the tree would become the center of intrigue as I solved mysteries with The Man from Uncle or traveled into the unknown with the crew of Lost in Space.
My mother never understood. “Why do you have to play so far from the house,” she would yell at me. “How would I know if anything ever happened to you?” I would answer her question with silence. I didn’t know why, but to me it was safer there. There no one knew my secret. No one knew that I played all the parts. No one else heard the dialogues that I carried on with my imaginary friends. No one knew that I was crazy.
At least that is what my immature mind told me. I had seen my grandmother’s craziness; how she talked to herself. I saw the family’s shame about her. I was doing the same thing and I didn’t want people to be ashamed of me. I carried enough shame for all of them.
“It isn’t good for you to spend so much time alone,” Mom would say as she shooed me out of the kitchen. “Why don’t you find some friends to play with?” I would stand on the step looking at the grey, dusty farmyard wondering how I was supposed to do that. The kids at school didn’t like me; there was something wrong about me which made them avoid me and bully me. Maybe it was my crooked teeth, or my glasses, or my old fashioned hand-me-downs. Maybe it was my shy nature or that school was too easy for me. Whatever it was, I couldn’t fix it. So I keep my head down and my mouth shut. I tried not to be in the way.
I would have liked to have had playmates but the only families with children in our area lived miles away and Mom was too busy with her cooking and cleaning to take me anywhere. And she was in too much denial to see me clearly. It was as though she believed that magically I was going to become popular and find friends. Friends who wanted to play at being shipwrecked, or lost in space or hunting down nefarious bad guys.
As I got older the imaginary games stopped. The shells and stones were scattered. The thongs disappeared and the pots and pans were smashed by the cattle which grazed there in the winter. But the tree was still my secret place; a safe place where I could go to rant at God. I would sit in the crotch of the tree, trying to understand why any kind of God would let one of his own have such a miserable life. I would think deep thoughts about the purpose of my existence. I would construct elaborate scenarios for my escape from my deathly dull hometown.
I still had no friends and I hated myself. I was still a shy, bespectacled bookworm. While other girls were talking about fashion and I was still forced into my cousin’s hand me downs. Other people were dating and I was sitting at home on the weekends with my clueless parents, using books as my new imaginary friends. I was still avoided and bullied at school for being different and if I complained about my ill treatment I was criticized by my mother for things I still had no control over. Only the stream knew how often I wished I could drown there. Only the tree knew of my wish to fall to my death from its branches. I would lie on the grass and look to the sky wishing to be carried away.
After my father died and my mother decided to move to town, I went to the tree one last time. This time I drove my car down the gravel main road and parked on the tractor trail. It was harder to shinny under the fence and when I stood up, Gilligan’s Island seemed much smaller. The tree had lost a large branch to a storm. The ground was bare and lifeless from overgrazing. Only the sky and the stream remained the same. I remembered when this place was my whole world. I remembered the battles fought, treasures found, and tears shed there. On the breeze I could hear my mother’s voice calling me in for dinner.
When I reminisce about the farm I think of Gilligan’s Island. The knurled weeping willow, the cool mossy stream, the clear blue sky. It was my magical place of refuge and reflection. It was a silent place where the impossible could be possible. It was the place where I could truly be myself as I searched for myself. It was a cathedral of wood, water, and air, and some days when life is too busy and complicated I long for the solitude I found there.