When our sons were younger, one book they never got tired of hearing at bedtime was Town Mouse and Country Mouse.
It was easy to understand why two farm boys would be so captivated by the misadventures of a down-to-earth country mouse and his sophisticated city cousin. When Town Mouse pays a visit to Country Mouse’s rustic abode under an oak tree, he dislikes the plain meals of acorns and berries.Town Mouse thinks Country Mouse’s friends are boring and the straw bed is rough and scratchy. He urges Country Mouse to come to the city to see what he’s been missing. But Country Mouse doesn’t like what he finds. The traffic frightens him, and the smog makes him cough. Rich foods from the fancy human house where City Mouse lives give him a stomachache. He is chased by a cat and a woman with a broom. He is too scared and unhappy to sleep in City Mouse’s hard little bed.
As one book review sums it up, “A town mouse and a country mouse exchange visits and discover each is suited to his own home.”
I have to admit, this classic Aesop’s fable sounded a deep, resounding note with me, too.
Once upon a time in a childhood long, long ago, I was the town cousin trading places with my country cousin. I lived in a new house in a new suburb in a north Alabama aerospace boomtown. Cindy lived four hours away on a south Alabama cotton farm. I played Barbies with my little sister and a street full of little girls. Cindy roughhoused with her three brothers. Our reciprocal visits each summer were arranged by our mothers, who were cousins. This lasted for a few years until I was almost 8 and my family moved out-of-state.
I don’t remember a lot about visiting my country cousin, but much of what I do are the parts that scared me. Don’t get me wrong – my vacations at Cindy’s house were an annual highlight of my young life. Once, I was supposed to ride to Cindy’s with my grandparents who were going to visit her family and other relatives. They completely forgot about picking me up until they had nearly reached their destination some 200 miles away. According to family legend, I was so inconsolable about getting left behind that my mother had to give me a tranquilizer to calm me down. (Hey, don’t judge. It was the ‘60s.)
Still, much of what I recall about my country cousin’s world was that which was stressful or frightening. In flashbacks, I remember watching for snakes as we walked barefoot in the soft, tilled dirt of the vegetable garden and – the weirdly random moments we remember! – cowering from a wasp in her bedroom. (Apparently I didn’t have to deal with many wasps in my climate-controlled suburban home.) Cindy’s mother worked off the farm, so in the daytime we were supervised by a black maid and housekeeper. I mention race only because Roxie and Bennie Lou were among the first African-Americans with whom I had ever had any significant personal interaction. They fascinated me and scared me a little at the same time.
I also recall, strangely, doing a lot of complaining about my feet. Whenever my athletic country cousins wanted me to join in a game of kickball or hide-and-seek or some activity that required running, I was always begging off because my feet hurt. Looking back, I suspect my tender city tootsies had developed stone bruises from so much going barefoot in the country. My cousins and I are in our 50s now, and they still tease me at every reunion by saying: “My heels hurt!” Now that I’ve been a farmer’s wife for 23 years and raising farm boys for 14 years, I realize I must have seemed like a big wussy to my country cousins. And that I was.
I can’t speak for Cindy’s memories of her trip to the city, but I do know that in my only real recollection of her visits to my house, she is also freaking out. One day, we were playing outside when we noticed a large, round, yellow spot on the next-door-neighbor’s lawn. As we stood puzzling over it, the neighbor’s teenaged daughter came out and informed us that the strange circle was made when a flying saucer landed there. She proceeded to tell us how she watched from her bedroom window one night as little green men got out of the spacecraft and started eating crawfish from the drainage ditch behind our houses. If there was ever any hope that my 8-year-old cousin, who was four hours from everything that was comforting and familiar was not going to get homesick, the idea of little green men in spaceships completely destroyed it. Cindy was so upset at bedtime that night, I wondered if my parents were going to have to drive her back to south Alabama right then and there.
Now, I get to re-live my days of town cousins and country cousins each summer when my 15-year-old nephew, Jack, comes to visit our sons, ages 14 and 11. Jack lives in a nice suburban house in the north Alabama aerospace town of Huntsville. Our sons live in an old farmhouse on a hay farm in South Louisiana. The comparisons to Cindy and I are unavoidable. So is the irony.
Although it seems like I should know better, I always imagine that Jack’s visits will leave him with magical, lifelong memories of fishing, camping, swimming in the river and playing in the hay barn.
But I’m not so sure.
The year before last, Jack’s trip inadvertently coincided with our older son’s All-Star baseball season, which had lasted longer than anticipated. We spent the entire week driving back and forth every day to a tournament two hours away in Gonzales. Last year, it rained almost the entire time, so my boys and Jack built a massive blanket fort. They furnished it with pillows, blankets, a fan, an Xbox and a flat-screen TV and camped out in the living room for days. We spent the only sunny day at a waterpark in Baton Rouge. Not exactly the stuff of magical farm memories.
Then again, aching heels and extraterrestrials were not what our mothers hoped Cindy and I would remember from our little cultural exchanges, either. Maybe, like Town Mouse and Country Mouse, the most valuable lesson any of us have learned is that “each is suited to his own home.” And that, despite our differences, we love our cousins, anyway.