03/06/2008 01:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Freshly Mown Grass -- The Legal Kind

The smell of freshly mown grass is like a ticket to a time machine. Every Wednesday, when the gardeners mow the lawn, I enjoy a trip to my childhood that leaves me with a satisfied grin on my face. The earthy, fresh scent makes me remember easier days filled with neighborhood kids on bicycles riding freehand down our street, with warm, afternoon air billowing through our shirts like sails. I remember games of Ah-lee Ah-lee oxen free, where we chased each other across an imaginary line in the front yard till we tumbled in a pile on the soft, cool grass, all of us getting rashes, and none of us caring.

Freshly mown grass means long, warm spring days. It means friendship and laughter, and running with wild abandon. It means swinging on the backyard swing as high to the sky as you can, feeling that thrill of a tickle in your stomach that would make you giggle out loud.

The air smelled clean with the aroma of grass mingled into it. There was hope, and happiness, and promise about it somehow. Food tasted better on those days - -especially if my dad pulled out the old barbecue and grilled hamburgers, or even better, a couple of steaks for the family to share.

The memories attached to that seductive scent of grass are some of the best I have. I remember ripping up an old cardboard refrigerator box, and using the long sides as a sled on the hill beside the church that dipped sharply into a wild, overgrown gorge nearby. We'd ride two by two on that make-shift sled through tall grassy weeds and bumpy earth, until we skidded to a stop at the bottom, flushed with a combination of fearful thrill, and pride at having stayed on the cardboard. At the bottom of the gorge, a small creek trickled down the middle of it, with pollywog-filled water that was mostly runoff from a man-sized pipe that burrowed under the highway at the top of the gorge -- another adventure waiting to happen. We'd lay in that flattened out weed-grass, and search for bugs, horny toads, and scissor-weeds until we got up the gumption to hike back to the top of the hill and do it all over again.

The smell of grass makes me yearn for an old-fashioned picnic at a community park. A huge family-and-friend affair with us kids climbing trees, joining baseball games, and twirling hula-hoops. My folks were so happy in those years -- at least it seemed so to me then. Life was easy. We kids didn't think about the cold war, and Viet Nam was somewhere in the future. John F. Kennedy was still alive, and the Beatles had not yet arrived on the scene. My biggest problems were the raspberry-sized wounds on my knees from too many falls off my bike, and the dirty mouths of the mean boys from the neighborhood who liked to cuss around us girls to make us mad.

But childhood doesn't last forever. As I grew up, I began to take notice of the rest of the world -- things that as a child, I couldn't begin to comprehend. I began to be aware of the crime, and the worrisome burdens adults like my parents had to bear. Kids I knew started doing things that weren't so innocent, and sliding down a hill on cardboard, or playing hide and seek till dusk began to lose its appeal. We had all crossed the imaginary line into teenage-hood, and eventually into adults, having to shed our playful, care-free, rolling-in-the-grass sides along the way. Innocence lost.

World politics became real to me when I started college and crime and drugs and the realities of Viet Nam and nuclear waste became commonplace in the habitat around me. Children weren't as safe on the streets as they used to be, and you didn't see as many of them playing alone, as was normal when I was a kid.

Those days of carefree youth are precious memories now; I feel a sense of loss when I consider the innocence of those times. I miss not having to worry. I miss not caring about the grass stains, and I miss that wonderful smell.

Three of my four kids are mostly grown, and flown -- but my grandkids aren't allowed to run willy-nilly around the neighborhood, to spend the livelong day outdoors tramping from one friend's house to another. Their friends are spread out all over town. They have to be driven to their friend's homes -- they have to be supervised. My fears are not of the child-like variety -- of falling off cardboard sleds, stepping on bees, or scraping knees. My fears are the scary, real fears that adults have -- because we know how the real world is.

Now I appreciate my parents so much more. They knew about the real world back then, too -- they just protected us from it. They were probably scared to death about the possibility of war with Russia -- a couple of people in our neighborhood had actually built bomb shelters -- an extravagance beyond measuring in our minds. My folks were certainly aware of the crime. But it was up to them to deal with the recession, the economic ebbs and flows of daily life, and the struggle to provide a warm, safe house and full bellies to all of us kids. They had those burdens.

We kids had the light-hearted fun.

Now, as I race past the half-way point of my life as mother of four, I know that no matter which generation, no matter if one has a city or rural life, it's still up to the parents to provide a safe harbor for their offspring. It's up to parents to give their kids the mental freedom from the tethers of adulthood and grown-up realities -- at least for awhile. Kids need to delight in the simple things -- to follow a butterfly down a weeded path, catch a ladybug, and roll around in the grass until they're itchy. They need to have that opportunity to enjoy, to explore, to imagine, to see the wonder in it all.

It's up to us as parents to give them that grace period -- the freedom from burdensome worries so they can develop a healthy respect for the beauty of life. We need to provide them with a sense of the North so that when it comes time for them to shoulder adult burdens, their interior compass will help make them aware that life holds more than just a paycheck every week -- that some of the richest treasures on earth are free. They'll remember that they could swing on a swing, ride a bike free hand, and perform a perfect cannon ball off the diving board of a public pool. Kids need to experience the thrill and freedom that comes from newly mown grass, so they can savor it later when they're sitting in traffic on a crowded freeway somewhere.

When I smell mown grass, my memories are so vivid that when I relive them, they bring about the most pleasant side effects imaginable. My lips curl into a smile, and my eyes don't see what's in front of me. Instead, I see my third and fourth grade friends, giggling and squealing, charging around the yard playing tag. I can't remember their names, or all of their faces. But I do remember the peace, the freedom, and the promise that life was worth living. I do remember my family, and mostly the good times.

And I remember the smell of the grass.