From the driveway of my babysitter’s house, all anyone could see was a mass of blackberry bushes. The prickly brush ran maybe twenty feet out into the fields, and another thirty feet from the woodshed towards the road. There was nothing special about the bushes, except for blackberries and of course, the occasional scrape when you were running past. I was five years old at the time. The only thing I really cared about was the blackberries.
What I didn’t immediately know about those blackberry bushes—and what I would soon find out—there was a secret world hidden within it. Some of the older kids called it a “fort” and being too young to know what a fort was, I dismissed them for other activities. When I saw some kids disappear into the bushes by the woodshed, then reappear out by the road, seemingly unscathed, my curiosity finally got the better of me. Despite a warning from one of the older kids, I slipped between the side of the woodshed and the blackberries bushes.
At first, I found nothing exciting except blackberry stickers clawing at my clothes. I was going to turn back in defeat, but I noticed a slight parting in the brush in front of the wire fence marking the boundary of the field. I ducked my head inside, then the rest of my body. I slipped through the small opening between the bushes. I marveled at what I found.
Someone, likely one of my babysitter’s older sons, had hollowed out most of the insides of the blackberry bushes, leaving a cocoon of green leaves, brown earth, and filtered sunlight. To this day, finding that “fort” was easily one of the most exciting and beautiful sights I can remember. It ranks up there with my wedding day, my journey across the country, and the birth of my son.
Naturally, I wanted to give something of that feeling to Jacobi.
Every kid deserves a fort, a place outside the boundaries of normalcy that funnels the imagination. For months, I’d been planning to build something for Jacobi, and when Mother’s Day came, I asked Jen if she would like me to build it as her gift. Because she loves seeing Jacobi happy, she agreed. This worked well for me also because I wasn’t very excited about the prospect of building planter boxes. I loaded up some supplies, sketched out a vague outline of what I wanted to build, and went home to begin work.
Even though I had to do most of the construction, I knew from the beginning this would be a father and son effort. This was part of the Mother’s Day gift…get the two boys out of the house so Mom can have some peace and quiet. Jacobi and I got to work one Sunday morning. I made cuts while he scooped up sawdust and deposited it in various places throughout the garage. I predrilled holes and he slipped nails and screws into place. While I held boards together and screwed them into place, he built towers out of the chunks of 2x4 scattered around. Sometimes he got in my way, and sometimes I got in his, but we worked well together.
Over the next few days, Jacobi and I put together the shell of his new fort (we just got the roof put on this afternoon). It is a little more detailed and less chaotic than the blackberry fort from my childhood, but the wonder I see in Jacobi’s face reminds me of the wonder I felt that day not all that long ago.
What really caught me by surprise during this whole experience was not Jacobi’s reaction, but the amount of joy I get out of working with him. When we go to the store together, he listens to me and helps me—he knows we’re on a mission so we can keep working. When we’re working at home, he might not be working with me, but very rarely is he working against me. He knows there’s a rhythm to the work. He’s my son, my companion, and as his father, I hope there’s a thing or two I can teach him. I hope some day he’ll teach me something too.
If you haven’t done so, I highly recommend the fort experience. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or cost any money. It could be a few blankets held together by clothespins in a corner of the living room, or a sheet of plywood nailed up in the crook of some tree branches. It could be some blackberry bushes, hollowed out and filled with wonder. But whatever you decide to do, do it with your child. Let them help. Let you help them. So far in my short parenting life, nothing has been as rewarding as this.