My mother hung a cowbell just outside the back door. In the mornings my brother and I were allowed to watch one show on the television. We would choose Sesame Street or Electric Company. Then, my mother would kick us outside.
“Don’t come home until you hear the cowbell,” she would say. And we would not.
For miles surrounding our house in every direction were fields. Most years they were fields of corn. On an odd year they would be alfalfa. I loved the alfalfa because you could crawl in it and roll in it. I imagined myself a princess on a big green pile of pillows. The corn frightened me. Shorter than my brother, I found it hard to navigate. I would trudge through the rows hoping to come out the other side still pointed in the direction I originally aimed. This rarely happened.
Every so often, between the fields were strips of land with tall grass and oak trees. We climbed the trees, like look-out towers, finding endless delight in how small our house looked from where we perched. We would pack ourselves lunch and a thermos of water, enjoying our boloney sandwiches in the sunshine and fresh air, laying back on the grass, picking shapes out of the clouds and brushing ants from our skin.
Then, through the auditory haze of the grasshoppers, birds, swaying grass and distant lawn mowers, we would hear the high pitched clang of the cowbell. She would ring it for a little while and then trust we heard it. We knew if we did not start moving now, she would come back to ring it again and then we would have explaining to do.
I trusted my brother to lead us straight back. I kept my head down and tried not to trip.
As the summer wore on, the threat of the combines loomed. Their growl made me nervous. I feared someday being halfway home, the cowbell in the distance, my little feet dodging stalks and ridges of mud as the combine breathed down my neck. I imagined being sucked up unnoticed into those blades. I tried to move quickly through the fields once the green began to fade from the corn.
After lunch my mother would send us back outside again. If we grew tired of the fields, we would ride our bikes up the long country road until we found the place where the fields met the woods.
At the edge of the woods was the old cemetery. We thought the caretaker had it in for us, but we still dared visit the property. It was small and filled with plain headstones. It was the best place to ride your bike because it had the newest black top. You would grind your way up the hill as you first entered the gate, crest the top, and then a long, gentle curve took you back to the entrance, the misty air sticking to your skin as you flew through it. You never once had to pedal until you got all the way back to the road.
If we ventured inside the woods, we would tip toe along the creek, trying to see into the dark water. At the right time of year I could gather enough frogs to fill all my pockets. Then my brother and I would race home, giggling at the sensation of the squirming frogs trying to break free from our soggy Sears jeans.
Because somewhere in the distance was the cowbell.
Then one day I decided frogs were gross. I did not want them in my pockets. I wondered if the dirt would stick to my pants if I sat down in the grass. I wished we lived closer to town. I hated the hour long bus ride home from school. I envied my city friends who could walk next door to each others houses, who could put lemonade stands out on the sidewalk, and who could walk to the candy store on their own. My nearest friend was a mile away and he did not have a telephone.
I decided I did not want to be a country girl. I wanted to live in the city. I must have been misplaced.
When we moved to a new town, I begged for us not to live in the country. My parents insisted. It made no sense to me. And so, despite the new location, I was once again riding the country roads on my bicycle, packing lunches, and trekking into the woods. But it was just me now, my brother was grown. I would lay in the grass with my book, under the canopy of the white pines, dreaming of other worlds.
Over the years, I plotted and then executed my escape. My father would take me on business trips. I would travel for school. I moved away for college. Every visit to a new city confirmed the wrongness of my upbringing. I was meant to live in the city, I thought. I am smart like a city girl. No one would guess I was from the country. I knew a lot despite my lack of experience. The city just felt right. It felt like I belonged.
And then one day it did not. After a lifetime of insistence, after moving myself as far from those fields as I could, one day I realized it did not fit. I did not fit. Perhaps once I had, but I did no longer.
That day I missed the green and the fields and the open sky. I missed the sticky morning mist over the cemetery. I thought of my mother on the back porch, listening for the laughter of her children. Waiting to see what their pockets were filled with today.
There are no frogs where I am now. No white pines, no alfalfa, no combines to fear as the autumn sun burns on the horizon.
But somewhere in the distance is the cowbell.