Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Riding my bike on a beautiful day last week, I noticed very few kids playing outside. Made me a little sad. The following piece from my memoir, Writing Home, chronicles a late-summer memory of my son’s childhood. First published in the Christian Science Monitor, it still gives me that “end of the summer” feeling every time I reread it . . .
It began in June with a large cardboard box, just roomy enough to house my wiry eight-year-old son, Nate, and a scrap of old tweed carpeting.
“The fort,” as Nate dubbed it, was expanded throughout the summer to include several new rooms, each designed from salvaged appliance boxes of various shapes and sizes. By the time it was finished, the fort curled like a corrugated snake across the entire lawn. Other kids in our neighborhood added their own flourishes — round windows, paper awnings and banners, plastic pipes and tubes. (Whether these served functional or aesthetic purposes, only the children knew.)
By the end of July, Nate’s cardboard Xanadu had become something of a local landmark. It was such hot property, in fact, that you had to write your name on the official SIGN-UP SHEET to be admitted inside, a bit like the exclusive restaurants lining Main Street downtown. Since we live on a corner lot in a carefully maintained suburb, I worried that our neighbors would object to the ever-growing mountain of boxes in our yard. If you had no imagination and didn’t know you were looking at a playhouse, you might have guessed we were careless about storing our trash.
But no one complained. Other parents who had watched the fort’s progress were amazed to see that something as simple and economical as a stack of empty appliance boxes could keep so many children amused for so long. One afternoon, a local building contractor even stopped his truck to admire the fort’s design.
“Hey there, that’s quite a place!” he called out to Nate and his pals. “Are you renting space in your cardboard condo?” But the kids insisted they weren’t looking for more tenants.
“Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. We’re born with the desire to create a home, to build our own retreat. And while home can mean something different to everyone, the need for a sense of place is universally human. To a small boy, a discarded carton contains unlimited potential for a playhouse or a fortress of his own.
But to the homeless man who camps near the railroad tracks at the edge of our town, a cardboard box might be his only refuge.
Nate and I first spotted the shelter a few weeks after his fort was built. We were heading toward our favorite fast-food restaurant downtown, taking our time as we walked along a gravel service road flanking the railroad tracks. We noticed a crude assemblage of large boxes almost hidden behind a tangle of wild thistle and Queen Anne’s lace. Torn blankets and soiled clothing were strung on branches nearby; long sheets of blue plastic encircled the base of the boxes like small rivers. We agreed that the makeshift shelter looked remarkably like his cardboard fort back home.
“What’s all the plastic for, and why does the man live there instead of a real house?” he asked as we walked past the encampment. I explained that the homeless man probably used the plastic to keep the boxes dry when it rained. But I didn’t know how to explain the complexities of being homeless to a suburban second-grader who is tucked securely into bed on a full stomach every night.
Following a heat wave later that week, a powerful evening storm rolled in. It brewed so quickly that my husband and I didn’t have time to pull Nate’s fort into the garage. By morning it was scattered across the lawn. Even “the turret,” a sturdy refrigerator carton in its previous life, had toppled like an uprooted tree among the soggy ruins.
At first I was secretly relieved that we could finally dismantle all the boxes that had taken over our yard. But Nate was fighting tears as he tried to salvage parts of his handiwork, and I couldn’t help but feel his loss. Together we folded the sheets of rain-soaked cardboard and piled them near the trash in our garage.
Since then, school has started again. But we haven’t discarded a cardboard box without seriously considering its possibilities. And we often wonder about the homeless man who had set up camp near the railroad tracks. The last time we walked there, we noticed that his shelter, like Nate’s fort, had collapsed in the hard summer rain. — Cindy La Ferle