The summer we lived in Bonner’s Ferry, I was five, or maybe six. I remember that summer fondly — the first of the golden buzzing summers in the Northwest. I remember one of my favorite things to play: Brownstone. I would walk out of the house – on the side with the big tall trees toward town, not towards the deep forests – holding a full cup of water and a spoon. Then I would creep under the porch. There was dappled light down there; more than enough to see by, but not enough to nourish plants. It was just plain dirt. Not dirt with construction waste mixed in, or dirt with old roots, or rocky dirt. Just, well, dirt.

And with the consummate care of an artist, I would spend hours under there transforming that dirt into mud. There’s a particular delightful state of mud when it’s nearly solid, but the surface gleams with smooth moisture. I can see it a lifetime later in my mind’s eye. My goal was to create patties of this delightful stuff. I named myself a brownsmith. A blacksmith works with iron, but a brownsmith’s stuff is mud.

From the eyes of a parent, I have to suspect that what this looked like was an hour of silence followed by the need for a bath. Funnily enough, I don’t remember the baths at all. Just the way the mud looked.

Yesterday I had a reprieve from my usual schedule. A friend was coming, and she was bringing dinner. So instead of tying my children to my apron strings as I cooked a proper meal for them, we all sat in the front yard together. Thane sampled the tasty bubble rods. I drew an outline of Grey on the sidewalk and added antennae and a spaceship, having way more fun with it than he did. But finally he noticed the flowerbeds. I had mulched them, but they need loving care again. Apparently you have to deal with your lawn more than once or twice a summer — who knew? Anyway, he asked if he could dig in them. My first reaction was: no! You’ll mess up the flower beds.

Then I thought, “Am I the sort of mother who won’t let my son play in the dirt?” and I said yes.

Then he wanted to use some bricks to plant brick seeds that would grow into brick plants. And I thought, “What a mess this will make!?” and then I wondered. Am I the sort of mother who won’t let my son play with blocks in the dirt? So I said yes.

For 20 minutes my son happily built a brick hovel and piled intermixed dirt and mulch on top, while Thane sampled the fine vintage of grass clippings on the lawn. I played Bingo with him for the 30000th time. The sun shone dappled through the trees, and I remembered the dim recesses of Brownsmith.

Maybe tonight I’ll give Grey a spoon and a cup of water, too.

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Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

One thought on “Brownsmith”

  1. My middle daughter LOVED to dance naked in the rain – almost never had a cold – and she loved to play in the mud! In fact I was convinced that she would grow up to be a pro mud wrestler. She is 20 now and the mud wrestling didn’t happen, thank God! But I am so glad that I too said “yes” because those are some of my happiest memories of her childhood.


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