Photo by Julie Miley Schlegel
This past weekend, I traveled with my parents up to Northwest Arkansas, where my father grew from a fifth grader to a man. We visited family and made stops at places that we remembered. We soaked in the fall colors and I took photos of the White River and Beaver Lake and the beautiful mountains. The long weekend felt like a forest-bathing retreat.
Getting out of the city is always good for me. There was the green downslope behind my grandparents’ house, where my sisters and I used to race or roll down the hill until it got dark. There was the backyard where my grandfather grew carrots and beans and peas. The shed behind which my dad used to keep earthworms for fishing bait.
My family was slightly annoyed that I would stop to take photos of every tree, but every tree had a different song and its own message. The sun sparkled on the yellow and orange and red leaves in a different way than it did the green or brown ones. Time in the forest was exactly what I needed.
On the drive back home, I asked my dad to tell me once again the stories of his childhood, so I could hear them as an adult. One of my favorite stories is the story of Sput and the hunting coat.
In these same woods and among the same trees that restored my soul last weekend, my dad and his dad used to go squirrel hunting. Yes, you heard that correctly. Squirrels. Like the cute one in my sister’s yard in Montana that hides apples all over her property. But back in 1950s Arkansas, my dad and his dad would bring home squirrels and my grandmother would make squirrel mulligan stew. I’m a doubter about this stew, but my mom says it had carrots and potatoes and swears it was delicious – that squirrel mulligan tasted, well, like stew.
My grandfather always had a squirrel-hunting dog, and the squirrel dog that stars in this particular memory was a brown terrier named Sput.
As the story goes, my dad and grandfather had spent an afternoon hunting squirrels in the woods. My dad said back in those days, there wasn’t as much private property. They would just drive along the gravel country roads and, if they passed a good hunting spot, they would park the car and head into the woods. On this day, my grandfather had to get back to town for an evening meeting at church, so the hunting wrapped up as the sun started to go down.
My grandfather and father came out of the woods back to the car, but the dog, Sput, was not anywhere to be found. They called and called for him, but Sput did not come. My grandfather took off his hunting coat and asked my father, then an adolescent, for his coat, too. He put the two coats down on the dirt where the car was parked and left them there on the ground.
Driving off without Sput, my grandfather told my father they would come back out after his meeting to pick up the dog. My dad describes feeling doubtful that the dog would be there. He was worried that Sput might be lost in the woods. After all, why didn’t he come when they called him? I can imagine the fear and concern in my dad’s young mind, driving off without his beloved dog.
Well, hours later they drove back out to the woods after my grandfather’s meeting. It was dark by then, and my dad says that as the headlights of the car flashed on the place where the coats were, there was Sput, lying on top of their coats.
“They’ll be back for me,” my dad said he imagined Sput thinking. “This is the place where they were, and I’ll just wait on them here.”
As we head into the holiday season, and with the autumn Arkansas leaves fresh on my mind, I’ve been thinking that parenting is kind of like being an old hunting coat on the ground. And how, in life, when things get complicated, it is helpful to return to the places and people that are like those old hunting coats on the ground that smell like home.
Family and home are, hopefully, what we return to after exploring for a bit and, perhaps, even getting lost in the woods. Like a coat on the ground, we return to the comforting smell of home, and the comforting feel of the people we love.
From the time a child takes his first steps, he is inching away from us. When I open the door and walk into an exam room at work, a newly walking toddler will forgo his confident exploration around the room and hurry-waddle back to his parent’s lap a few feet away. Back to the hunting coat.
A child at the elementary school carnival will take off with her friends to explore the bouncy houses and rides but stay within the confines of the known school grounds. She will eventually, face painted and belly full of cotton candy, seek out the familiarity of a parent to take her home. Back to the hunting coat.
An adolescent will take off to parts unknown without even thinking to say where he is going, and the college student has her own life a town or state away. The times our kids venture away from us become longer and farther, and sometimes we might think they’re lost in the woods. Just like we return to the old coats that bring us comfort as adults, we now become the old coats that bring comfort to the next generation.
As we get into the holiday season and some of us are fortunate enough to gather with family and friends, the story of Sput and the old hunting coat rings true. We head back to the hunting coat that is meaningful to us, that holds the memories and the comfort of the people we love.
Sometimes we need to go find the coat in the woods. And eventually, for our kids, sometimes we will be the coat in the woods. As our own children take steps and adventures farther and farther from home, we can wait like Sput on the coat. “They’ll come back to us. This is the place where they were, and I’ll just wait on them here.”