When I was a little girl, I spent my childhood at my grandmother and great-grandmother’s lake properties in northern Michigan.
My great-grandmother, Mildred, lived behind her daughter. The house was small and enclosed by a myriad of trees and bushes. An old wood fence separated the two properties.
I spent much of my childhood running through my grandmother’s garden and playing games late into the night with my cousins. We would run around the yard after having been in the sand and lake all day. We dug for shells and stones. We floated on inner tubes and jumped off docks. I ran across the beach screaming from anything that unexpectedly crawled out from under rocks. We would sit around the bonfire with the adults and wait impatiently for our parents to bring out the marshmallow supplies. We would roast and we would tell stories.
I was a curious child and loved roaming around my great-grandmother’s yard in particular. She had piles of firewood, a mysterious decrepit shed, mounds of leaves, and plenty of moss covered logs strewn about to go searching under.
Mildred would spend hours walking around with me, searching her yard for only things a child would find worthwhile. I was so curious. I had to go out every day and explore, and she would take me.
One day, I happened upon a toad.
There was this one tree, and the bottom of the trunk had been destroyed, leaving a hole large enough for the toad to rest comfortably inside. Every day, I swung open the screen door, and barreled down the steps towards the tree to see the toad. One day, I was crouching down & trying to coax Mr. Bumpy out of his humble wooden abode, when my great-grandmother came up from behind me and asked, “Where do you think it came from?”
“I don’t know grandma, but I bet he has been a lot of places.”
Sitting cross-legged in the dirt, with my chin in both of my hands, I watched as he slowly hopped his way towards me and plopped down just inches from my tennis shoes. He let me run my finger over his bumpy, damp skin. I wondered what adventures the toad had been on prior to finding himself on Mallard Trail, in the company of a fragile old woman and her granddaughter. He too was an explorer, a wanderer like me. As kids often do, I sat there and talked to the toad like he was my friend.
To my surprise, he was there the next day, the day after that, and so on. I would sit with my back up against the tree trunk and watch him peek in and out. One day he hopped right into my hand! My great-grandma would sit nearby on the bench next to the fire pit and we would make up stories about what Mr. Bumpy did when he was not hanging out with us.
I wondered aloud, “Do you think he likes it out there all alone? Do you think he is okay? Should we keep him safe?”
“Oh, that is all part of the adventure. Mr. Bumpy will move on some day. He will find another adventure and then another one. He will meet plenty of other creatures to help him along the way,” she advised me.
I practically shouted at her, “I would like to do that one day. I bet he sees all kinds of cool stuff!”
“You are going to, and when you do, just remember the women in this family have guts. You’re going to need them. You’re the bravest little person I know, and that too will come in handy. ”
“Okay grandma, I will.”
Time passed. I grew up and moved away—and before I knew it, it had been eight years since I had visited my childhood playground. I was out in the world doing my exploring and creating real stories of my own to tell—just like she knew I would.
During the course of my adventures out west, my great-grandmother passed away. I finally found myself back in the mitten state and on my way to the properties for one last visit. The toad popped into my mind, and for a split second I thought, “I wonder if he is still there.”
Of course he wouldn’t be, and it was in that moment I felt a wave of sadness wash over me. For time passing so quickly? For my childhood? For my great-grandmother, my kindred spirit? Maybe it was all of it.
I was genuinely saddened by the fact that I would not be able to revisit that memory, and that this memory, like all other intangible memories, was only real now in my remembrance of it. We can’t hold onto them like objects we keep, and I wanted to hold onto that toad one more time. I wanted Mildred to ask me, “Where have you been?” It reminded me how much I loved that curious little girl, who had a wild imagination.
I was the girl who fell in love with an ugly, bumpy toad. Who made the bottom of an average tree trunk the most magical place on Lake Otsego. That spirit I got from my great-grandmother. I wear the curiosity and sense of wonder that she instilled in me like a badge of honor.
That toad was probably long gone in the months following our daily rendezvous. Like most kids, I became distracted by something else and the visitations ended, but little did I realize at the time, I placed a piece of my childhood in that tree trunk. I kept the feeling alive in my heart, and in the mere moments it took me to realize how silly it was to have wondered about the toad in the first place, time became a reality. It came and it went without asking me if it was okay. How dare it!
All it takes sometimes is a long-lost memory to remind us what and who made us who we are, and to break our heart all at the same time. That little creature (that peed on me several times) reminded me of several magical days in the thick, wet summer, that I spent with a special woman. When I became certain I would see things, wonderful things.
Where have I been? I’ve been places, wonderful places. Armed with my guts, just like you said, I have fed my curiosity. And what have I found? That leaving “the tree trunk” was worth it all.
Before the property was sold, I walked over to the tree one last time. I stood near the bench where we sat all those years ago, and the hole in the tree was smaller than I remembered. The ground was disgusting, and I couldn’t believe I ever sat in the dirt completely unaware of the bugs crawling all over. The yard wasn’t as expansive as I once thought, and the trees smaller in number, but the most important thing remained the same.
I picked up the moss and leaves bunched up inside the hole, and I peeked under it, just out of curiosity…
Author: Amanda Shaune
Editor: Nicole Cameron