To the real world, the adult world, it was just a sand pit. To me, it was, is, always will be, Paradise Valley.
One of my earliest, dimmest memories - I must have been about three - is of my grandfather taking me by the hand and walking to the valley. Standing at its rim, it looked like the Grand Canyon snaking off to the horizon. We looked down on the treetops below, a very unique view for someone my age, and then slowly meandered around its circumference. I remember his hand enveloping mine, as bony as it was strong. He told me the history of the place: a sand pit, long abandoned; now a play place for children by day, teens by night. I wrinkled my brow, did teens play?
I had a lot to learn.
Being well over six feet, he was forever ducking under the branches that united to form the green tunnel we ambled through. Me, I picked the wildflowers that carpeted every speck of the open earth that rolled and swayed around us. As the shadows lengthened, even mine got tall, so it had to be late, they spilled into the valley, filling it with darkness; time to leave. We plodded back to their cottage where I presented grandmother with my mangled bouquet. You'd have thought I was Bert Parks crowning her Miss America. For those of you of the "Internet Generation", I guess I should say: she was like a singer on "American Idol" getting a good review from Simon. She proudly displayed those flowers in a chipped old vase she kept around for just such an occasion. With seven grandsons, she got a lot of wilting wildflowers.
Ten years later, Dad and I moved into the cottage. I don't need to tell you why that was, do I? The first day, I went for a walk with my faithful dog Rex. I didn't know where the valley was, but my feet remembered. Standing at the rim, I was struck by how small it had gotten. Someone must have filled in part of it! I walked its perimeter; strange how the path hadn't changed. It still slithered and angled and rambled around bushes and trees, and oh yes, those flowers too; they were still the same. Although, I did notice the trees had been lowered.
We tramped down the slope. Rex raced ahead, me leaning back to keep from falling forward. Dust and dirt fluttered up to polish my sneakers. I truly thought I'd end up flat on my back; so far did I have to bend. Rex was in paradise. He darted about, over the tiny dirt bluffs, through the thick brush, rolled in the dew-covered grass and lifted his leg against every tree he found. How does a little Jack Russell Terrier have such a big bladder?
I patted one of the old Junkers that formed a sort of "coffee clutch" in the central open area. The gritty red dust of the hood clung to my palm. It felt like diamond dust stabbing at my skin. Closing my eyes, I heard only Rex's pawing at the bare earth and my heart. For that single moment, I was the valley. My feet didn't feel the ground beneath them, they merged with it. My lungs didn't draw in the still air, they floated about with it. My arms stretched out, blending with the foliage around me to become the trees. Slowly, not wanting to shatter this fragile connection, I wiggled my branches and felt the leaves brush against my bark.
And then it was over. My bliss evaporated as I was pushed back into my own body. It felt cold and empty and very lonely in there.
In front of me, there sat a massive granite boulder. It was like a great fossil egg. I clambered on top of it and got into a rough lotus position. I felt like a chairman addressing his Board, or a giant chicken hatching her young. I went with the former and looked at the Junkers encircling me.
"I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here, today?" I said.
I laughed, and felt like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of "A Christmas Carol". My "chains" had suddenly lightened, just a bit. That's when I realized, since the day, since the divorce, of my parents, I hadn't laughed. This place had given that back to me.
Rex sat before me, looking up with an expression that screamed: "Oh yeah, he's gone."
I closed my eyes, inhaled and heard grandfather telling Rex the history of this place. Funny, his voice hadn't come out of my mouth before. By then, my bony little behind was getting a bit chilled from my roost.
I patted the hard stone. "I dub thee 'Inspiration Rock', for you and this place have given me just that!"
Gathering a handful of flowers, we returned to the cottage. They looked good in that dusty old vase.
Over the years, I took my nieces and nephews and friends to the valley. It was the canvas of our childhood. It was our battlefield, our race track, our space station and submarine. Funny how we all survived without injury; and oh yes, Rex was our constant mascot. As for me, many a quiet day and night was spent atop that rock. At times, it was the center of the Earth, and other times, the top of Mount Everest. From there, I looked outward, into the universe and contemplated the infinite. Was God listening? I also looked inward, and examined myself: my beliefs, my fears and dreams. Why the divorce, was it my fault? Why the hate from my brother, was it my fault? Why were Lisa and the other girls getting all "bumpy" and why did they have that cute little wiggle when they walked? And more importantly, why did I find it cute? Why did I always know exactly what I wanted to say to Lisa, except when I was talking to her?
Then I blinked, and then came the day I will always remember, but pray I could forget. I took Rex to his favorite spot in the valley, and returned alone. It was a good thing my feet remembered the way. For some reason, my eyes were very watery. I think it was the pollen. That day's bouquet, I left with Rex. Let that be a lesson to you all; never blink around a beloved pet or child. Time is cruel to lazy blinkers.
A couple years later, I returned, my daughter's tiny hand enveloped in mine. I was barely out of diapers, but I walked her around my special place. Voices of the past seemed to be carried on the gentle breeze. Stopping by a certain oak, she pointed at the ground.
"Doggie sleepin'," she said.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight out. I had never spoken of Rex to her. "What?" I asked.
"The doggie is sleepin'," she said.
I smiled and got down on one knee next to her. "Yes, Alexa, he is." I blinked very fast. Damn that pollen!
We picked a nice bouquet that day. It looked beautiful in that cracked and dusty old vase.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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