The disappearing "country kid"

I remember them - us - vividly: dust-covered, clothes worn for 3 or 4 days at a time, no shoes, white teeth flashing in smiles cracking through the brown skin, grass stains and scratches like sunlight in the garden. I remember long days with only moments spent indoors. I remember baseball games attended in your play clothes so you could get dirty. I remember a distinct notion of difference between "good clothes" and "play clothes", and I remember the list of activities we had sorted in our childish brains...with all the "fun" stuff in the column under "play clothes".

I remember the way the metal playground slide burned your thighs in the brief moment before you went whizzing down. I remember the rust on the bolts, and the creak of the swings, and the worn dirt tracks around the equipment where a thousand pairs of feet had worn the grass and plowed a rock hard groove into the dirt beneath. No wood chips, no rubber tires ground up, not even sand. I didn't grow up in a cushioned world that anticipated my every fall.

I realize now how my mother may have felt, watching us scale slides several stories high, imagining the tumble back down the 20 foot ladder, or worse - over the side at the top, with the thump as body smacked bare ground. But I also now understand the choice to let us keep climbing.

I have always fought against the tide, even as a "country kid" amongst other country kids. But it wasn't my clothes or my attitude that made me stick out back then - it was my height, my brown eyes, my dark hair. The fact that we were home schooled in the pioneer days of home schooling. I still stick out today: cancer has made me throw caution to the wind and embrace things in life that are less than conventional. I don't just climb up the ladder and go down the slide once, a quick remembrance of a bygone day. I go again and again, my laughter joining the children's in the hollow in the pine forest playground.

We take our kids to t-ball in the country. But there are no country kids to be seen. These kids are scrubbed bright, and there isn't a well-worn shirt in sight. I spot more Prada and Gucci than Lee and Wrangler, and every car in the lot is spotless and new. Apparently no one else drives a beater, chasing down the curves of the country roads with the windows open wide and the kids giggling on the bench seat.

Most of the tall trees have been cut down, and the old metal slides were sold as scrap a few years back. All to make way for the plastic play center with all it's pseudo-activity accompaniments: plastic climbing wall instead of the knotted rope, plastic swing seats that promise never to creak, a twisty slide with bumps to slow you down, and warnings on every post that children must always be accompanied by a watchful adult.

A few of the old playgrounds still exist. The dirt divots under the swings, the pine needles the only carpet to cushion their falls. When we visit them, we are the only ones on the playground. Doubtless they will soon be replaced with something newer, better and safer.

I find that even harder than being a country kid is growing up to be a country mom. Gucci and Prada aren't my style. The new car doesn't fit in a one-income budget. The laundry is already piled high in the queue, even though my kids sometimes (*gasp!) wear their clothes for more than a day at a time. I've had to alter the country lifestyle a bit so that we aren't on the receiving end of too many sideways glances. The kids only play on the dirt pile on bath day. We keep a stack of "good clothes" for town trips. We try to make the kids wear shoes at least some of the time.

So here's to the country kids, who revel in the life they find waiting outdoors. The kids who don't worry about wrecking their jeans when they go about their play. And here's to the country moms, who wear their "play clothes" to t-ball games and let their kids get dirty and let them spread their wings on the playground every now and then. I wish there were a few less magazine articles touting "the simple life", plastered with photographs of picnic tables dressed out in full linen and iced drinks and dainty finger foods that take hours to prepare. I vote for a little more of what really constitutes "the simple life" - the dirt-under-the-nails, gravel road, sandy, sweaty kind of simple life where you're too busy working and playing to worry about appearances.