From the time my son, Patrick was a few days old, my husband took him for a walk in the woods. Not even able to focus his eyes, Dale would tuck him under his arm and carry him out into the swamp behind our home. No women allowed. “Only us men,” Dale would say, and once out in the forest, he would whisper to our firstborn all the secrets of the great outdoors.
“Do you hear Mr. Owl?” he would ask. “There’s Mr. Crow.”
Patrick’s first words were a turkey call. His second words were a hoot owl call. He spoke in the shorthand that my husband taught him. On a visit to the zoo, at an exhibit featuring blue herons and snowy egrets, Patrick looked up to me. “Mama, tchk-tchk! Tchk-tchk!” he said with his index finger crooked. “Yes, Patch,” I replied. “Big bird catch-a fish! That’s right! Those are the Great Blue Herons just like we have at home.”
Though I would have liked a walk in the woods with my boys, that was “Papa Time” and my husband jealously guarded it. I’d be rewarded for my patience, though. They would leave hand-in-hand, Patrick’s short legs churning to keep up with my husband’s long stride. My firstborn would return to me with a fistful of blue toadflax, or a perfect pinecone, or a wild persimmon, or some other treasure of the forest. I’m never sure which of the two of them looked more forward to Papa Time, or which one was prouder of the treasure with which Patrick presented me.
Patrick wasn’t even two years-old when Liam was born. Like his older brother, Dale tucked him under his arm and my three boys would walk out into the swamp just before dark. All that ended when we moved to Georgia. Liam wasn’t quite a year old. Our new home in Georgia was surrounded by open farmland and homes. The woods had long been cut down to make way for cotton fields and sorghum. The Papa Time nightly walks in the woods were reduced to waterfall hikes on camping trips and all but faded into memory.
Tonight, I was left at our campsite standing guard over the two sleeping younger children while Dale started walking into the woods. “Where are you going, Papa?” Patrick asked. With a small gesture, Dale invited him along. Patrick fell into step beside him, his own legs much longer and much more easily keeping pace with his father than they used to.
I watched them disappear into the green woods. For a moment, I could remember my tiny son, his little hand tucked trustingly into his father’s, wandering out into the woods not so many years ago. This time, when they returned, Patrick brought me a handful of baby toads.
As I sit here at the picnic table in the fading light, waiting for the lightning bugs to make their nightly appearance, beside my little pink netbook sits a square plastic container with tiny toads merrily hopping around the little habitat my boys have created for them, and I am content.
Just as I saved the last word, they emerged from the camper with two fishing poles and ventured off into the woods again.