Putting on the Big Boots

The house that kids built

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Rough gray columns of every size extended to the sky; cottonwood and boxelder trunks formed the walls on three sides. Patches of stinging nettle (I called them burning weeds) sharply jutted between the trees for added security. The ceiling was a canopy of green and brown, branches that softly swayed in the South Dakota breeze, lighting up the room with moving stripes of sparkling sunlight. For years, small feet pattered the ground there, wearing down the weeds to a floor of soft black earth. We called this space in the woods our play house.

Deloris, Darlene and Dorothy claimed the spot and made it their summer home when time allowed between chores and helping Mom. A square of plywood on a tree stump made the table. We sat on short log chunks pilfered from the wood pile. Peach crates and larger wooden boxes stacked along the walls served as the stove, shelves for dishes and pans, as well as beds for the babies. Tea was served in cans and chipped cups. Budding chefs honed cooking skills, baking mud pies and presenting them fashionably on paint pail lids.

I was not very old the first summer I followed two of my sisters to the play house. They likely would have preferred not having me there, but Mom gave them strict orders to keep an eye on me. Darlene opened the door, a five-foot stick that fit between branches of two spindly trees on the south side of the area. As she shut the door, I noticed four tall sticks leaning on a tree just next to it and figured they were weapons for fighting off wild animals and brothers.

Immediately, the girls got to work. Dorothy laid her doll, Dickie, in the biggest wooden box and reached for a battered, curved-bottom pan. She set it on the stove and turned on the burner, a bent nail on the side of the box. Darlene scooped some dirt into a coffee can from just outside the door and dumped it in the pan. Dorothy poured in water from a clouded jar and looked around for a spoon. A short dead branch hung within reach and soon became the stir-stick.

I sidled quietly over to the baby bed, sure that Dickie needed burping or something. “DeAnn, don’t wake the baby!” (Sheesh!) As Dorothy stirred the mud-pie dinner, she looked around for something for me to do. “Mom sweeps every day,” she said. “How about if you sweep the floor?”

I looked down at the powdery surface, scattered with boxelder seeds. “Why? It looks good to me.”

The girls looked at each other with mutual sisterly annoyance. “We don’t want it to look like a barn.”

With a frown, I stared at the floor, thinking those little brown helicopters looked nothing like the brown stuff in the barn. “Why? I like the barn.”

Dorothy stirred faster; probably the mix was burning. Darlene had an idea. “We need a broom. What can we use for a broom?” I shrugged, thinking I would rather take care of the baby than sweep anyway. “Hey! DeAnn, go find a bunch of long chicken feathers. I saw some in the yard by the coop.”

As I reluctantly headed for the chicken yard, I shook my head and wished Delmer were not out in the field with Dad and Don. I could follow him around instead of hunting for feathers. But when I returned, the girls approved of my find and quickly twisted a piece of wire around the feathers at the bottom of a broken hoe handle. I swished it through the dirt and soon had a stack of twigs and ‘copters in the corner. “Good!” Dorothy exclaimed and scooped some up with her hands to add to dinner.

Before we could eat (Thank goodness!) Darlene decided we should drive to Grandma’s. Dorothy let me hold Dickie as we climbed into the “car,” two old boards just outside, setting on tree stumps. Darlene sat on a rusty metal tractor seat in the front and drove us over the river and through the woods.

Over the years, four little girls spent many hours in that play house, making memories, creating, pretending and imagining. Though our parents often called us in after an hour or two, needing help in the kitchen or on the farm, they understood that children needed time to play outside on our own.

Today, child researchers expound the value of connecting with nature. They list advantages like better distance vision, absorption of more vitamin D, breathing fresh air, improved social skills and boosted learning. There is an organization in the UK, the National Trust, which lists 50 things children should do before they turn 11. Most engage the outdoors. One commends building a den or some sort of outside play area.

The Trust also recommends a “must-have” toy to inspire a child’s imagination. They contend that this toy can become a pen, a broom or a magic wand. (How about a door, a weapon or a spoon?). What is this magnificent must-have toy? A simple, humble stick.

Imagine that!

Kruempel’s books, the “Promises to Keep” series, are available at Amazon.com. Watch for her soon-to-be-released book, Once Upon a Midwest Sunset, a compilation of the stories from the NOOKS AND CRANNIES column. Contact her at deannkruempelauthor@gmail.com and receive free weekly stories, recipes, photos and updates.

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