My grandparents, Nana and Pappy, lived on the top floor of a six-story apartment building in Flushing, N.Y. For years when I was a child, I stayed with them two glorious weeks each summer.
During the day, Nana and I cooked or shopped, or I played with the little wooden block village kept for me in a bottom drawer.
When Nana did laundry in the basement, we rode the elevator back to the sixth floor, then carried the basket up a flight of stairs to the roof, where clotheslines stretched in open air. The black-tarred walls were higher than I – a barrier broken only by a small, barred opening on each side. Nana never let me near the walls or those openings.
I loved the roof, the strangeness and adventure of it. True, I couldn't look out. The building stood taller than the huge trees surrounding it, taller than other buildings in the neighborhood, taller than the power poles and electric wires that lined the streets. But I could look up. Enraptured, I stood in the sky.
When Pappy was home, I was allowed to look through the barred openings at the edge of the roof. He held my hand while I strained to get closer. One day as I tugged Pappy from one opening to another, movement caught my eye. I pulled him toward that corner of the wall. There, sprouting from an eye-level crack in the tar, grew a blade of grass.
A blade of grass, here on a barren roof in the sky! A small splash of green – single for an inch or so, then dividing into two spears, widening, narrowing to points, and waving in the breeze. I drew in my breath. How could the seed have come here? How could a seed, coming, have found a foothold, and having found it, managed to sprout? Alone in an alien environment, this blade of grass grew strong and joyful. I visited it as often as I could.
And so I became a lover of grass. By the time I was 10, I had embraced a fellow islander, Walt Whitman, through the rhythm and wonder of his words. Pappy and I visited Whitman's birthplace farther out on Long Island, and together we read "Leaves of Grass." I loved the line, "A child said, What is the grass?"
This celebrator of life pondered and came up not with morbid expositions on chlorophyll and DNA, but with intimations of spiritual oneness and universality: "I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven./ Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord..."
At 16, I discovered the prairie. My family was making a great Western tour, an eight-week odyssey. We arrived after dark one night at the edge of a tiny town just over the Montana border. In the morning I woke early and quietly let myself out of our motel room.
I tiptoed away from the buildings, slipped through a pole fence, and walked out into prairie. The gentle swells and roll of the land soon hid all signs of civilization, surrounding me with nothing but clear sky lightening overhead and grass – tall, boundless grass.
I stood breathless, feeling in my own heartbeat the pulse of the prairie. Turning slowly, arms outstretched, looking out in all directions as far as I could see, I felt the cool breath of the earth replacing my own – perhaps knowing that it had all been leading up to this from my stunning awareness of that first blade of grass.
I walked slowly into the sunrise through grass to my knees, thighs, waist, not minding the dampness – drawn through a rippling sea, transformed by its scent, by the dawn, by the air, by the freshness of beauty.
How far might I have walked if I hadn't come across a draw, with bushes and a small tree, resting comfortably like an inverse island in this verdant sea? This broke the spell and reminded me of time and place, and how far I'd traveled. Far enough, in fact, that as I followed my wavering shadow back the way I hoped I'd come, the prairie rolled, the grasses rippled, and I started to feel anxious. Were my parents awake and worrying? What if I couldn't find my way back?
For a moment this openness, this space, became a scary thing. I thought of bonnetted women bobbing in wagons on this ocean of grass day after day, thought of their fear and their courage. "All the past we leave behind ... Pioneers! O Pioneers!"
But then I topped a rise and saw low buildings in the distance. I hurried on, my heart aching at having to leave this world behind. I thought of Whitman's line, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars."
Gently, I plucked a stem of prairie to keep and to carry me into the future.