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  • Mj Pettengill

The Unknowing Is the Knowing: Where Do the Children Play?


Children Play, CC0
Children Play, CC0

As odd as it seemed, I sensed her heart pounding in my chest. At first, she was skipping, and then she broke into a run. Winning meant everything. Being first mattered. Gaining momentum on the sloping hill, running towards the playground, she leaned forward as if she might fall. She wouldn’t. I knew right where she was headed. It could have been me.


I closed my eyes, recalling freedom from pale yellow cinderblock walls, once shiny tile floors, and the unmistakable smell of mimeograph ink. Things were so simple; I almost can’t grasp it now. Did I keep the Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrapper? I wondered if it was that bad to eat snow or if we could get the vertical lines to stop rolling on the television screen.

I returned my gaze to the girl. She made it, quickly finding her way to the top of the big rock. She placed her hands on her hips while the others ran towards her. That day, as if for the first time, I realized that laughter is a soothing balm.


I want to think that the girl and I were the same, but we aren’t. The rock was unchanged, but her future looked more uncertain than mine did when I stood there. Sure, our parents may have had differences. Still, now, divisions run deeper than any of the pristine rivers that flow throughout the land. She may or may not return to school the next day. With little or no change, Monday always showed up in our world. We had an idea of what to expect. So, the unknowing is the knowing.

My eyes followed the familiar stone walls that border the schoolyard and my childhood home. Amazingly, the same rusty wire fence stands between our house and the parsonage, where we used to go sledding. Back then, the hill was a mountain and seemed to take much effort to climb. Now it is not even a hill that I can imagine being considered as one.


Sometimes, when we went too fast on the toboggan, we careened out of control, aiming straight for a small brook that was actually a sewer. I used to think it was neat because there was a tiny footbridge over it, going from the field to the horse pasture.


When we were headed for the dreaded black sludge, one of the older kids would shout, “roll!” Just seconds before reaching the disgusting slush, we bailed. So, retrieving the sled usually meant the end of the experience that day. I often watched in horror while one of my older sisters waded through the muck, thankful it was not me, and now, thankful I was not my own mother.


So, again, we—the children—shared the experience of getting messy, having to walk in the unpleasantry of raw sewage; only ours was literal—the real deal. The kids of today face it metaphorically and with more dire consequences.

I wonder, who tells them when to roll, to avoid the mess at the bottom of the hill? With so many voices clashing, it must be a challenge to hear.


But as always, we carried on. And they will too. If we didn’t get covered in crap, we found other messes. Burdock, nearly impossible to remove, clung to our mittens, hats, pants, and jackets. By the time we made it to the porch, we were bound to be covered with something. Even if it was simply caked-on snow, we had to stand there while our mother swept us clean with a broom before we could peel away layers of wet winter clothing. That was our biggest worry.


We sat at the kitchen table in our long johns, hat heads, and perfect red-circled cheeks, drinking hot chocolate with Oreo cookies. Of course, the latter depended on whether or not Glenn Smith’s store had them in stock. He usually did.


There hasn’t been a store in town for quite some time. So, yes, we were better off. We could dash to the store and buy simple necessities—the seemingly insignificant details that make a difference. We didn’t have to drive, have an internet connection, or wait in line. We were the lucky ones. Our children and grandchildren? That is yet to be determined. (Pray for them.)


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