I don’t think it is possible for me to properly describe how much I love summer. Not just for the obvious: the long days, warm weather, and water sports that I love so much. For me, the reasons run deeper than that, following a trail of happiness that winds through my youth, back to the days when summer breaks felt as though they lasted forever and days were filled with imagination so pure, only a child could conjure it.
In particular, I think of those trips to Chicago we used to take to visit my grandparents each summer. Nana and Papa’s rectangular house squatted in the middle of their postage stamp-sized property, a sensible house in all its post-WWII utilitarianism. The backyard, however, was another story all together. Bordered by chain-link fence, it was small but magical, with roses blooming in proliferation, ceramic woodland creatures dotting the landscape, and a small vegetable garden offering up its continuous bounty.
Tucked behind the garage was another patch of dirt that somehow provided all the entertainment my brother and I could want. Some days it was a crocket field, on others a place to line up our army men and dive headlong into battle. We searched out bugs, scratched out games in the dirt, and basically let our imaginations run wild. It was here that one of my most distinct memories from childhood originated.
“Why don’t yous kids see if yous can dig to China? It’s a long way, but Papa has faith in you.” Papa usually referred to himself in the third person when he was talking to us, and sometimes deliberately messed with his grammar. His most famous line was “Poooooor Papa! Pooooor Papa!” whenever he teased us for some imagined slight.
Andy and I collected the small gardening tools that Papa offered us, and set to work digging the biggest, deepest hole anyone in the Chicagoland area had ever seen. We worked feverishly, united in a common goal of seeing the Orient for ourselves. The thought that this world could have been beneath us all this time was beyond fascinating, and tiny trowelful by tiny trowelful, we were determined to unearth it. A while later Papa came around the garage to check on our progress, his blue eyes twinkling with merriment. We were sweaty and panting, dirt stuck to every pore on our bodies and every fiber of our clothes, the original color of which was completely indistinguishable. We looked to him with hopeful eyes, asking him for his opinion on our glorious hole.
In all seriousness, he examined the pit from several angles, nodding his head and absently muttering “mmhhh, mmhhh,” to himself. Finally, with the two of us leaning forward with suspense, he pronounced. “Why, that is a fine looking hole. I’ll bet you can hear the Chinese music if you try hard enough.”
“Really?!” I asked incredulously. He nodded sagely and I quickly laid down on the edge of the pit and stuck my head in as far as I could get it. The earthy scent filled my nostrils, and I could almost taste the damp soil. Holding my breath, I listened hard. The blood was starting to rush to my head, and my lungs were anxious to be filled, but still I listened. After a few moments, I swear I began to hear the twangy, harp-like plucking of some exotic instrument and the rhythmic beat of a drum wafting from beneath the dark, moist dirt.
“I hear it!” I exclaimed, awestruck at the discovery.
I laugh now when I look back on that day. Papa was so clever, knowing exactly how to tap into his grandchildren’s sense of adventure and imagination. He always was the one who made the fantastical believable and the impossible possible. I must give much credit to him, for he knew exactly how to encourage one’s imagination to run away with oneself.
I only wish that he could see me now. When he passed away, I was still working in the science field, toiling away at all the truths and absolutes in this world. I’d like to think that he would be delighted by what I do now: Making a living by virtue of digging deep into my imagination, exactly like he used to encourage me to do. Believing that the world of make believe has an element of truth in it, and striving not to take myself too seriously. I’m indebted to him for finding exactly the right way to foster my imagination, and I like to think that a piece of him lives on with every story I write :)
So tell me, who was it that made the biggest impact on who you are today? And I wonder (since I don’t have kids of my own), in today’s world of technology, do you think children today rely as much on imagination as they once did?
Erin Knightley’s debut novel, MORE THAN A STRANGER – A Sealed With a Kiss novel, is in stores now. The second book in the series, A TASTE FOR SCANDAL, releases in December 2012. For excerpts, blurbs, and more, visit her at www.ErinKnightley.com. She’s also on Twitter and Facebook.