Stories in the woods grow to fill the space

Our collective family is meeting my brother’s collective family in a small river town on the banks of the Missouri. It has been two years since we have all been together. It is a crisp fall day. The sky is bright blue and “the air tastes good here” according to one of the kids.

After everyone has arrived, hugged one another, ogled the new babies, put a serious dent in all the food, taken pictures and ogled the new babies some more, it is time for a walk in the woods.

The kids tear down the trail, laughing and yelling, scaring nearby wildlife into early hibernation.

We are identifying leaves that have fallen—maple, oak, elm, sycamore, when I find a leaf no one can identify.

It looks like a mitten with two large thumbs, one on each side.

There are numerous guesses, all of which are dismissed, when someone finally says, “Sassafrass. I think it’s a sassafrass.”

Of course, it is.

My brother, who speaks with authority whenever he spins a yarn, corrects the pronunciation. “It’s sassyfrass. Sassy. Frass.”

He asks if any of the kids know what the sassyfrass leaf is for.

They are mum and their eyes grow big.

“Long ago, people made tea with the sassyfrass leaf and gave it to their children. It would frass the sass right out of them. Yes, sir, sassyfrass tea—frasses the sass out of kids.”

Quiet descends on the group. Then a meek voice asks, “What’s sass?”

“Sass is when your mom or dad tell you to do something and you talk back or argue with them.”

The bulk of the group looks relieved, but a few squirm uncomfortably.

We continue our walk, some gathering sassyfrass leaves, others vigorously kicking them aside, when a black cat crosses our path in the distance. By the time news of the black cat reaches the tail end of the group, it may have been a large black cat but it was more likely a small black bear.

Stories in the woods grow to fill the space.

We return to our hotel before dinner and everyone props open their room doors so kids can come and go. I am making a cup of hot tea to take the chill off when one of the girls pops in.

“I see you’re having tea, Grandma. Is it, you know, some of that sassyfrass tea that takes the sass out?”

“Why yes, it is,” I say submerging my Earl Grey tea bag and doing my part to keep the story growing.

She darts off, probably to tell the group that Grandma soon will be a changed woman.

The next morning, she asks if I think the sassyfrass tea worked.

“I can’t tell as though I’m any less or any more sassy than I was before,” I say.

“I don’t think you were sassy, Grandma. Maybe it only works on real sassy people.” There is a twinkle in her eye. We both know who needs the sass frassed out of him.

I’ve read that families are like fudge, mostly sweet with a few nuts.

Ours is no exception.