How my sister and I made dirt funny

What is the charm of the average mud puddle to youngsters? It’s only dirt and water. Is it the sound of the splash?

Carlos Osorio/AP
Children wallow at a park in Westland, Michigan, on the town’s Mud Day earlier this summer. In this week’s Home Forum essay, Susan J. Alexis reminisces about days of carefree puddle jumping during her childhood.

I believe in dirt – as long as it knows its place. Add water to the black loam of Minnesota, the red soil of Georgia, or even the ground granite of the Southwest, and fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers will grow. The dirt itself, aside from sustaining plant life, is also a home for insects, earthworms, and burrowing animals.

In the dirt that gets under my fingernails from planting and weeding, I find a connection with all that lives and grows. Add a surfeit of water and you have mud. From the ancient Israelites making bricks with straw and clay to current adobe construction in Latin America and the U.S. Southwest, sunbaked mud bricks have formed the walls of human shelters for millennia.

Dirt or mud in my house is another matter. A plant matures and proves useful. Dirt doesn’t evolve. It only returns. Sometimes it’s dog prints or my own footprints. Other times it’s dust – those fine, dry particles of matter so small they’re invisible until they congregate. They do a lot of that in my house.

I do not normally consider dirt a hilarious subject. I don’t want it on my clothes, my rug, or my kitchen counters. But this week, the repetitive tasks of dusting, vacuuming, and scouring brought with them the decades-old memory of a time when dirt, specifically mud, sent me into uncontrolled giggling.

My sister and I were preadolescent. Mom and Dad slept upstairs. The two of us slept downstairs, directly below them. Like most youngsters, we were rarely tired when bedtime came.

With lights out and our voices lowered to whispers, we’d play “Go find a mud puddle.” In this invented game, the two of us contributed alternating lines to a made-up story. The plot line could go anywhere. But at some point, one of the characters had to make an unrestrained belly-flop or pratfall into a mud puddle.

This sent the two of us into fits of stifled laughter, but not stifled enough. From the floor above, the thud-thud-thud of Mom’s heavy-heeled shoe indicated she could hear us and we’d better go to sleep. Instead, one of us would slip out of her twin bed and crawl in with the other, pulling the blankets over our heads to muffle the sound as we began another story.

What is the charm of the average mud puddle to youngsters? It’s only dirt and water. Yet I have seen grade school boys get in line to slosh single file through one of these after a rain. Is it the sound of the splash? A desire to imagine oneself an explorer tromping through the jungle? The glee of making a muddy mess without Mother scolding “Don’t do that!”?

I have never fallen into a mud puddle. My position on dirt is clear. But this week, while cleaning (and bemoaning the monotony of the chore), memories of “Go find a mud puddle” popped into my head. I stopped, dust rag midair, and burst into laughter.

I could see Hardy splatting belly first into the muddy mess, Laurel standing by with his look of bewildered incompetence. Imaginary characters tripped through my mind, all heading toward that mud puddle waiting somewhere down the road.

The dusting was finished and half the vacuuming done before I settled down. My mood had taken a U-turn. Dirt was funny again, and life was good.

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