A Yankee Notebook: Kids absorb the outdoors

Willem Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Willem Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


For the Valley News

Published: 06-12-2024 10:28 AM

We started the kids out early, Mother and I. From summers working on an island and living in a wall tent off the coast of Maine, and little weekend outings, we progressed to a trip down the Allagash when the oldest, Virginia, was 11 and the youngest, Martha, was 2. I don’t know if they found the experiences and settings as idyllic as Mother and I did, but they certainly contributed to family cohesion.

We older folks did most of the domestic chores. We read the maps and planned the routes, cut the firewood and did the cooking, picked the campsites and supervised the erection of the tents. The kids helped out around the fringes by picking berries, stirring the stew and keeping their gear packed and in order. But they were close enough to the main action to get the idea of how things were done.

One memorable afternoon on Chamberlain Lake in northern Maine we paddled ashore just ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, flipped the two canoes over (they were rigged as a catamaran with a pair of spruce poles) covered them with a tarp, and crawled underneath. While the storm raged around us, we boiled up a pot of freeze-dried noodle soup on the Coleman stove and shared a soupy communion by the blue light and loud blasts, counting seconds to determine the distance of the storm and distract ourselves from our instinctive fear. About a week later in Baxter Park we did it again, sheltering in a screened cabin on a small island during a fierce rain and wind storm. More soup, and the only time I ever felt that my family’s survival depended on my getting a fire going and keeping the rain from soaking us.

I’ve often felt that we adults fail to appreciate how much our kids pick up from the things we say and do, and how little we consider either the examples we set for them or the consequences of the way we treat them. For example, whenever someone on my Facebook page laments the sorry state of “young people today,” I find it hard not to respond that we’d best treat them with a little more respect, because in almost no time at all, they’ll be our doctors and nurses, congresspersons, firemen and teachers; and about a day later they’ll be pushing our wheelchairs and changing our diapers.

It was impossible to know how much our kids absorbed from all the activity they were exposed to in their childhood. They graduated from high school and college and set off about their lives. A few years ago, the two girls (women by then) and I went canoe-camping at Green River Reservoir State Park in northern Vermont. In a matter of minutes I was jarred out of my patriarchal assumptions by their obvious competence (and speed!). The boats got pulled safely up onto the shore at our campsite, firewood was cut and split and the pasta was on the boil. All this while I put up my tent. Watching them, I wondered, “How in the world did they learn to do all that?” I needn’t have. They were (suddenly, it seemed) adults. Of course they knew all that stuff.

This came home to me again this past week or so, a birthday week, when a couple of them dropped in. First it was Virginia, from Olympia, Washington, who was extending her trip to commencement at Notre Dame to see her son finish his graduate work on his way to a Ph.D. Say what? Grandson? Ph.D.? How did all that happen while I was living quietly in the hills of Vermont? On top of that, Virginia, who paddled bow in her mother’s canoe on the Allagash, was suddenly old enough to sign up for Social Security and Medicare. She won’t, but she could.

She left to catch the infamous early flight out of Burlington (a common occurrence if you live in a small city and need to make connections down the line). A couple of days later, my son, Will, who lives in Arkansas, arrived after making a pitch for geothermal energy at a meeting in Jay Peak. It’s a good gig, apparently; but he’s ancient enough, too, to sign up for old-age benefits if he wants to. He won’t, either.

The baby, Martha, is 55, selling real estate, and in a constant state of renovating properties. This is the child who sold homemade jewelry at street fairs, spent her winters figure skating, and used to hold the logs while I sawed firewood? Impossible.

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It’s bad enough, at my age, to have to scroll down forever at school reunions to find my class year. Now, apparently, I’m shortly to be joined in retirement by my own children. It would be easy to feel like a man sitting at the end of a bench being pushed off by more and more people sitting beside him. But it’s lovely to feel that my work is pretty much done, and maybe even done well enough.