An oak tree in the woods.
RACE, CLASS & GENDER

My Dixie Childhood Was Spent Under An Old Oak

My childhood was a strange love child of authors Wilson Rawls and Katherine Paterson. I was born on the banks of the rich and muddy Mississippi River, in a small two-bedroom, one-bath trailer. 

My four older sisters and I were surrounded by nature and our loyal border collie, Dixie. As we grew, we ventured out farther into the woods of Meeman-Shelby Forest in Shelby County, Tennessee, or as we saw it, our backyard. 

The author and his dog outside a mobile home.

Every day after breakfast, my mother shooed us and our beloved, Dixie, out the back screen door and told us to come back before sunset. During those hours, the woods became ours, and we ruled them with a fragile coexistence alongside Mother Nature. 

In our world, we were rulers of great and powerful kingdoms, brave knights of the Round Table, or maybe mayors of towns created out of sticks and pine needles. Our minds were really our only limitation. But no matter what we were pretending to be that day, our stories always started under the shade of the oak tree. 

There was nothing particularly special about the tree. It was just an old oak set in a small clearing past a small pasture in the woods. However, that tree was the world to us. 

Every day my sisters and I would race to the tree. It was a relatively simple race that always started with a quick sprint through the old barn that leads into a small pasture. 

Once we had winded ourselves in the first leg of our daily race, we met our biggest obstacle, the big green fence. Now, for most, this fence was nothing extraordinary, but for me, it was challenging as a toddler. 

My older siblings often cleared it in a matter of moments, and Dixie leaped it in a single bound, but I would usually fall from the top. I could always count on my trusty companion to return back to me, making sure I was okay, and help me up. 

Once I cleaned the dirt off myself, it was a short walk to the shade of the tree. I can vividly remember all of our adventures underneath that magnificent tree. We were there with giant sticks battling each other, pretending we were knights fighting for our kingdom’s honor. 

An oak tree in the woods.

Each of us took turns dueling with the others for the grand prize of whatever arbitrary object we found lying around, which was usually a pine cone or another bigger stick. 

Sometimes, we headed out with rakes and made huge piles of leaves to build “walls” for our houses. We pretended to be socialites in big mansions, throwing large parties for our friends and families. Or we would spice things up with an impromptu murder mystery that was never resolved because we never planned anything beforehand. I look back on those early days fondly. 

As we grew up, the games changed and so did our experiences under the tree. I remember the year I turned 6. My sisters were no longer going to be home-schooled and headed off to actual school for the first time, leaving me alone.

My dearest companion, Dixie, began to show her age more. No longer could she clear the big green fence in a single bound. She would sometimes struggle just getting out to our favorite spot. It always made me sad watching her struggle to get past that fence. 

As time went on, our games became less frequent. I would often hear, “I’m too busy to go out there today,” or “I have friends coming over” from my sisters, as they walked through the house doing whatever chore was assigned. So I went out by myself, no longer sprinting to be the first under the tree, but lazily walking with Dixie in tow. 

The author and his dog.
The author with his dog, Dixie 2.

Then I started to grow up too. Six turned to 7, and my parents thought it was time for me to be enrolled in school. However, they weren’t too fond of the schools my siblings were currently enrolled in, so we packed our bags. 

We headed down to Desoto County. My parents had heard from their friends that the schools were some of the best public schools around. 

The last week we were there was dreary. We had to say goodbye to our childhood home and all the memories we made in our forest. As we were packing, I noticed Dixie was missing. This raised some alarms for my family, as she was always close by one of our sides. 

My family split up into teams, and we started to search the whole area. We yelled and yelled, but she was nowhere to be found. Just as we were giving up, my oldest sister and I began to walk the old familiar track to the oak tree. 

We continued to yell as we made our way through the pasture, over the big green fence, and as we walked up to the tree, there was our beloved friend lying under the shade of the oak for the last time. 

I sat there with my family for hours crying while holding onto her fur. She was the closest and only friend I had ever had. Soon after we found her, Dixie passed, and we buried our friend under the tree where we had made so many memories. I cried for the next five days. 

In the end, I can’t imagine a better send-off for our Dixie. My sisters and I had had so many happy memories under the tree, it felt like the perfect headstone for our fine furry friend. 

I returned to the tree the other day to take a picture of the childhood place and smiled, and maybe even cried a little. 

Remembering how happy we all were in these woods with our messy hair and dirty pants brought up a well of emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time, and it’s all thanks to a big oak tree in the middle of a small clearing in the woods.

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