Pick Up the Sticks

Pick up Sticks was a game that we used to play when we were kids. “Pick up the sticks!” was not. That was an order bellowed by my father when we were kids growing up in the Midwest. Practically every weekend, that was my father’s favorite order to give. Usually because he wanted to cut the grass. Or maybe there was a storm the night before. Or maybe because he wanted us out of the house.

My brothers and I would reluctantly put on our shoes and jackets and go out into the yard. For the first 13 years of my life, we didn’t live in a subdivision. We lived just outside of one. We could see a subdivision. People in their new two story homes with their carefully plotted yards. “How do they live with those small yards,” my parents would ask. “Thank God for all this space we have. I could never.”

We had a huge yard. “A whole acre!”, they’d declare proudly. Pick up the sticks. We would stand on the sundeck and look at the expansive yard, the acre of yard and the many trees that lived there. Huge trees. Oak and maples that soared over our one story squat brick home. With many branches. Swaying and blowing in the breeze. Just shedding sticks.

We’d all spread out, to pick up the sticks, collecting them in five gallon buckets. Buckets we either carried with us or left in the center of the yard. I never carried them. My family used those same buckets to pick up after the dogs. I wouldn’t touch the buckets with a ten foot pole – or stick. Ha.

Thankfully, all of the trees lived in the top half of our yard. We had woods that bordered the west side of the yard and directly behind it. In the middle, the yard was all hill, steep and burning hot in the summer. Slick and great for sledding in the winter.

Sometimes, picking up the sticks wasn’t that bad. I liked our yard. We did have a great yard. The top half of the yard was always cool. The trees were beautiful. The sound of wind through trees on a sunny day is always an amazing sound. The no man’s land middle was awesome for sledding. And the woods behind our house were great for playing hide and seek. Or War. We mainly only played War.

Most of the time, it was miserable. At first, we’d all pick up the sticks in an efficient manner. We wanted to get it over with. Maybe it was cold. Maybe it was muddy. Maybe it was both. When we thought we got all the sticks, we would consult with one another. We’d defer the final decision with the whoever was the oldest. My oldest brother, first. If he wasn’t there, then the second oldest. “Is this good enough? Did we pick up all the sticks?” He would survey the yard, and say, “Yeah. We got them all.” Or depending on how that day went, on the mood of our dad, he’d say. “No, we need to get more. He’ll just send us out here again.”

The old man would check our work. He never took our word for it. Sometimes, he really did just need us to pick up the sticks so he could cut the grass. But most of the time, he did it to be a dick. Sometimes, he would move among us, like a foreman. Those were always the worst times. There was a reason he was out there with us. It was to spread more misery. We couldn’t joke or play as we worked. That would be calling attention to yourself and making yourself a potential target. And we didn’t feel like joking. We weren’t happy. Even the dogs were somber. We kept our heads down, looking for fucking sticks. If someone lagged, they got yelled at. Sometimes, even by fellow siblings. “Stop being lazy!” “I’m not!” “Fuck you!”

There were times when he would flush us out of hiding and into the yard. Why were we hiding? Because he had just gone maniac and went through the house, screaming and breaking things. I think those times, my mom would be out there, too. That seems familiar. Those were more rare, but unforgettable. Or actually, pretty forgettable. The mind sometimes has a way of blocking out shitty situations. He’d scream at us to get out of our rooms and get outside. Literally, scream. As loud as a grown man could. I’m surprised he never burst a blood vessel or tonsil the way he screamed.

We’d freeze initially. At least, I did. I didn’t want to go outside. There was a lunatic out there. My older brothers, resigned and cold, but still kind, would tell me to just go outside. They probably did the same with my younger brother. Then we’d all silently, walk around the yard, picking up the sticks, as a family. My mom never said anything during those times. Just told us to go along with it, I think. The path of least resistance was well worn in that house. Sometimes, he wouldn’t let us stop. I remember us picking up sticks that were two inches long. I remember my fuzzy pink gloves. The fingertips reaching into the dirt or mud to pick up tiny sticks. Because those were sticks and they should have been picked up. Technically, I believe those are twigs.

It wasn’t relegated to only sticks. Raking leaves was a huge family endeavor as well. Whole Saturdays, even whole weekends to manically raking that yard. I remember days of yard work that started mid morning to early evening. That could be an exaggeration, but maybe not. There were no clocks in the yard. The epic events were when he decided to rip up the perfectly good sundeck and rebuild it. When it was only three years old. Those were the best summers.

So, yeah. I don’t know how those subdivision families lived with those little yards. Probably happily.

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