Someday I just might write a book about backyards.
I took my very first steps in mine, and it was there that I blew out birthday candles, taught myself to swim, and made countless wishes on starry, starry summer nights.
I even first heard the sound of my own heartbeat right there in the oasis of my childhood.
The neighborhood of my youth was one for the storybooks, or at least a great new Netflix series. You choose for yourself.
Two roads, Kensington and Greystone, merged into one beautiful circle, only paused by a small stop sign that no one really ever heeded. My backyard helped to fill the center of the circle. We literally had neighbors on all sides, and I would never have wished it any different.
One of those neighbors kept my sister on the night I was born. It didn’t take me long to wear a bare tread path from my backyard to the Allen’s. The eldest of their two daughters was my sister’s best friend, and the youngest, Jennifer, was my partner in exploring a big, big world.
She taught me how to make potato chip and pickle sandwiches, smothered with mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise. On one side of her basement we were pop stars using the brick hearth as our stage, while on the other side we had our own pretend classroom that never lacked of red pens, worksheets, or chalk erasers.
Jennifer was fearlessly strong, adventure-seeking, and quite daring. She could effortlessly handspring and backflip her way around the neighborhood. Proof of the aforementioned one could note in the scars and stitches she wore with pride.
And back to the quite daring part….the Rotten Easter Egg Eating Contest of 1976 might be best played out in your imagination.
Yet Jennifer had a softer side too. It was at her house that I learned of the death of Elvis Presley. As many of the neighborhood moms mourned in a sea of cigarette smoke, Tabs, and tears in front of the console TV in her living room, Jennifer and I explored the woods to gather supplies for our own memorial to the King. Our moss, twig, and clover-covered aluminum pie pans paid homage as only those created by six and seven-year-old hearts could.
Rusty’s house next door is where we learned to play ball with a side of supper. His mama, Pat, blessed my heart every time I graced their door. I loved Rusty and he loved me. Although the night he made me walk home alone after watching the horror flick Friday the 13th because truth be told, HE was too scared to walk back by himself, made me question the depth of that love. The flashing bedroom light from my window would reassure him that I was safely back home. It only flashed after I had thoroughly and fearfully inspected my closet and underneath my bed. I am not a fan of horror movies, but I still love Rusty.
Rusty’s Uncle Joe, who lived up the hill behind my house, nicknamed me “Squirrel,” partly because of my pint-sized stature and more for my quart-sized cheeks. I honestly believed he had a bit of Santa in him. His big, bald head was always shining and welcoming of a rub; and his deep, baritone voice was best used for making others laugh. Uncle Joe became Papa Joe with the birth of his first granddaughter, Monica. His tractor was soon equipped with a kiddie-seat right there beside him just for her. Papa Joe is still a legend to me.
There were the sweet Kirby’s across the street, long empty-nesters who welcomed the younger neighborhood kids to use the awesome hill beside their house to snow sled. Mrs. Kirby would even turn on her flood light so we could sled in the dark without fear of hitting the large pines at the bottom of the hill. She radiated kindness.
And our dearest neighbor Sarge, repaired the dents, dings, and scrapes on my beloved Iroc-Z. Let’s just say I kept him quite busy in his retirement. As he took his morning and evening walks, I always stopped as I was driving out of the neighborhood to exchange greetings, get a hug behind the wheel, and catch him up on Teen Living 101.
There are many more stories of great neighborly lore for that book that I shall write one day.
But back to the 70s…
If I thought home couldn’t get any better, 1977 proved me wrong. That year my parents decided to install a swimming pool right there in the middle of the neighborhood.
Being a child of June, I celebrated every birthday thereafter in the cool waters of that pool. My mom’s friends came over on the weekends to drink sweet tea and tan on her special silver floats. My buddies and I invented water games, became expert penny divers, and were eager to torment my older sister and her friends summering in the pool.
Hot afternoons found my dad cooling off the sunburn in the pool after long days of mowing. He loved a good steak, a cold beer and cigarette, and his awesomely cool swim shorts. Bad habits didn’t seem so bad back then.
My parents hosted cookouts and company parties in our backyard, and I remember the giggles and gaggles of my dad’s habit of throwing huge watermelons in the pool to get them cold and ready for the table. This is where I learned that watermelons could indeed float.
My friends even had a special backdoor to the pool fence that they used often. No invitation was needed. I still best remember Jennifer bikinied, barefoot, towel draped around her neck, walking that path that connected our backyards. Swimming in the dark was especially thrilling, except when the stories of snakes, piranhas, and that horrid Friday the 13th surfaced.
There perched atop the blue pool slide, my heart inhaled the majestic fireworks every September when the Stokes County Fair came to town. Back then fireworks lit up the night sky every night promptly at 9:00pm during fair week. In my opinion there simply was no better view in town.
As the years passed my own children learned to take their first steps in that backyard.
They learned to swim in the same pool that I did and blow out candles on many of Nana’s birthday cakes that she always made from scratch. The waterlogged grandkids enjoyed Poppy’s well-done hamburgers on the grill and Nana’s Sunday suppers eaten outside by the pool. The neighbor’s grandkids would sometimes join us in the very waters that loved me so well.
When Poppy’s health kept him from being outside in the summer heat, he’d watch us from the kitchen window. The grandkid’s laughter permeated the weakest of hearts, and for a while, made it stronger.
My mom didn’t open the pool the summer after my dad passed away. It was in need of some extensive repairs and she just didn’t have the momentum to bring it back to its former glory. It just wouldn’t be the same. I felt it too. I knew the inevitable was coming.
A few months ago my mom made the decision to dig up my former sanctuary and fill it in with dirt. She’s aging too and I’m sure the chore of pool maintenance wasn’t at the top of her bucket list.
Yet I shamelessly admit I cried sitting alone in her driveway when I first saw the red dirt over the spot that made me feel the weightlessness of the water in such a heavyweight world.
How was I ever going to look at this backyard and not be sad?
I began to remember Mama’s clothesline at the far side of the lot upon which my dog Henry would sometimes swing from the legs of Daddy’s drying work pants. My eyes traced the path I once forged in my bare feet to Jennifer’s house, and I recalled the dip in the ground at the neighbor’s fence corner that we learned to jump over after many a twisted ankle. And in my mind I could still see those sweet, sweet apple trees that provided our afternoon snacks playing in the space where backyards merge.
What I have come to realize is that in a strangely beautiful way, my mother perhaps returned that backyard just to the way it was some fifty years ago when she and my dad first called it home and began their dream of suburban life… a haven at the heart of two streets that eventually merged into one.
Perhaps she is slowly readying it for the next family to call it home someday.
I pray they just might have a little girl who loves to run barefoot in the backyard too.
She will learn that the neighborhood is a trove of four-leaf clovers.
She will find the rusty nail hammered in the oak tree trunk down the street and wonder how it got there. It is still a mystery to me.
She will learn where to start applying the brakes on her bike as she descends the curve on Greystone. It is a doozy. I learned the hard way.
She may see for herself how incredibly enticing that hill across the street can be when it snows.
She will be fast friends with the Kreeger’s who will offer to mow the grass, pick up the newspaper and bring her food when sad times come her way.
And one day, one sweet day, she may even discover the stump that once grew a grand cedar tree right there in the heart of the neighborhood, on the edge of her own backyard.
She will find it a place of rest to ponder the stories of her heart.