Matthew and the bridge he built.

A few years ago, in this column, I wrote an account of a walk at Marshfield’s Daniel Webster Sanctuary with a friend and her three year old son, Matthew. At the time, Matthew was full of questions, and fascinated by such typical little boy things as skeletons, mud puddles, and green goose droppings.

Now Matthew is seven and a half — smart, active, and just as inquisitive as he was at three. But he’s growing up, and collecting bugs sometimes takes a backseat to Playstation 2. When he was younger, he was always thrilled to see his “Auntie Kezia.” But these days it’s hard to predict whether he’ll totally psyched when I come to visit, or utterly blasé.

Just before Christmas, Matthew and his mother came to my house to exchange presents. Since most of my friends have young children, I don’t do much entertaining at home – I’m more likely to go to someone else’s house where it’s more convenient for them. So even though I’ve known Matthew all of his life, to date he’s been to my house a total of four times.

My husband and I live on a long, narrow piece of land. You wouldn’t know by looking that our property extends for a few hundred feet beyond the house and the grassy backyard to include a dense pine forest and a seasonal brook. I mentioned this to Matthew after the excitement of gift giving had wound down, and since it was relatively warm outside (for December) we decided to go out back and explore.

I knew Matthew would enjoy our woods, but I’d forgotten how kids can take a keen interest in practically any new thing. Matthew was curious about our ramshackle barn, excited by the prospect of taking a ride on our tractor-like lawnmower someday, intrigued by my story of the red-shouldered hawk who day after day perched on the beam extending out of our barn’s roof when we first moved into the house.

But all that was cast aside when we got to the woods. “This is still your backyard, Auntie Kezia?” he’d ask. And then again, after we’d walked another hundred feet. “Still yours?” He couldn’t believe it when we got to the brook that marks our property’s boundary. “This is yours too?”

I decided to save my “the land is not really ours to own” philosophy lesson for another day. Instead, I pointed out the survey flags that marked the edge of our land, and explained to Matthew that he could stand in two towns at once by straddling the brook that marked the line between Marshfield and Pembroke.

But he didn’t seem to hear me. He was staring at me wide-eyed. “Auntie Kezia,” he said with some urgency. “We have to build a bridge.”

I remember being seven. I remember how vivid my imagination was, and how – in my mind — I could transform a generic backyard into practically anything, creating a deluxe fortress in the woodpile, or an intricate river system in the sandbox. I had nothing planned for the rest of the day, so I asked Matthew’s mother if he could stay with me for a couple of hours. She was happy to oblige, and so while she went home to tackle her holiday To Do list, Matthew and I set forth on our bridge building project.

We have quite a lot of bridge building material in our backyard – that is, quite a lot of loose branches and pieces of fallen trees that we’re slowly but surely collecting into piles to burn or give away as firewood. After collecting a number of long, thick branches, we then set them across the brook high enough to let what water there was continue to flow underneath. This was sufficient to hold Matthew’s weight, but not mine, so after that, we gathered shorter sticks and placed them crosswise as reinforcement.

After an hour we had our bridge, which was strong enough to hold an adult, but due to the irregular shapes of the foundation material, terribly wobbly. I asked Matthew how he thought we could improve upon our structure, and he decided that the best course of action would be to gather an assortment of walking sticks that people could use to steady themselves while crossing. While these were collected, Matthew’s neophyte sense of capitalism kicked in, and he suggested a fee scale for those who would use the bridge. I didn’t dare question the likelihood of someone needing a bridge to cross a two-foot wide brook in a private backyard, let alone paying a nickel for the privilege to do so.

After the walking sticks were in place, I led Matthew to the small bottle dump on our property. I explained to him how landfills are a fairly modern invention, and showed him the place in our yard where the people who lived nearby some time ago would bury their trash. Poking around with sticks, we found a number of jars and bottles, many intact. These, Matthew decided, would be where we’d collect our bridge tolls. So we carried them back to the brook and hid them behind a rock for safekeeping.

At that point, the sun was going down, so we took one last look at our accomplishments, and shot a few pictures so that we could show Matthew’s parents what he’d done. Not at all shy, Matthew posed proudly with his walking stick and even dictated photo captions to me. “This one can say ‘Matthew and the bridge that he built,’ . . . okay Auntie Kezia?”

On the drive home, Matthew and I discussed movies we’d seen, Elvis music, and what we each were doing for Christmas. Turning onto his street, it occurred to me that this was the first extended conversation we’d ever had. That, more than the questions he asks, or the homework assignments I sometimes help him with, or even the most obvious things like his changing height and features, indicated to me that Matthew is, in fact, growing up. It’s a wonderful thing to witness.

by Kezia Bacon Bernstein, Correspondent
January 2003

Kezia Bacon Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.