My dad lived in the same house for thirty years, and at least five days a week for those thirty years he spent time in his yard. That’s almost eight thousand times he put on whatever passed for his yard clothes at that time and ventured out to tend to the various chores that made the yard what it was. It was never one of those showcase yards you would see in Better Homes & Gardens, but it was home.
When my brother and I were five, our family moved into our first house. We had lived in an apartment as infants, and a rented duplex after that. My first memory of this house is the back yard. It was about a half-acre with grass and some trees close to the house, and the back three-quarters wooded. Weekends when we first moved in my Dad, Grandfather, and some uncles and cousins spent all their time clearing this lot and turning it into a ‘yard.’ My mother and grandmother were in charge of refreshments.
My brother and I weren’t allowed past the edge of the house while this work was going on. Trees were falling, underbrush was being burned, and machetes were flailing through the bushes. I don’t know how much time was spent on this project. I remember the woods were there, and then they were gone. In their place was a huge expanse of fescue grass, broken only by a bed of Irises in the middle and a bed of roses to one side. The only trees left were a tall sycamore in the middle, a huge shady water oak in one corner, a wild cherry close to the house, and two hickories on the other side.
Our family lived together in that house for the next thirteen years – and five days a week or more for those years, it was always the same. My father came home from his office in downtown Atlanta as an insurance underwriter. First, in a 1957 Chevrolet, then in a 1963 Volkswagen beetle, and finally in a 1968 Volkswagen square-back. He got home, found out how much time before dinner, changed into his ‘work clothes’, and went out to Work In The Yard.
Work in the yard was a phrase that covered a hundred activities over the years. There were hedges to plant and then trim, grass to seed and then mow, ditches to dig, and flowers to plant. He tackled each task with a seriousness and focus, as if this way, and no other, was the way to accomplish the mission. And accomplish them he did, whether it took an hour or months an hour at a time.
And heaven help the boy that slowed or reversed any of this work. If he found a small footprint in a bed of new seed, or a young twig was broken, there followed much finger pointing. We both found that the best thing about having a brother was there was always someone else to take the blame. Neither of us ever did anything, the other brother did.
As they say, though, neither wind nor rain nor dark of night would keep him from his appointed rounds. There was always some task that needed attention. It might just be watering a new bed or trimming a hedge. It might be something major like digging the ditches that ran across two sides of our property. No job was too small or too large.
There was the time that one of the trees left in the lower part of the yard dropped a small limb on the roof. Dad decided that tree had to come down before it caused more damage. Armed with only an ax, he began chopping down the wild cherry. As it got closer to falling, he looped a rope around the trunk above a high limb. He gave the other end of the rope to my mother. She was placed out of range of the falling tree and told to pull with constant pressure while Dad finished chopping through the trunk. As the tree began to sway with the final swings of the ax, Mom began tugging on the rope causing the tree to rock. Swaying the wrong way, the tree finally broke and fell on the house, creasing the gutter. Dad was not pleased.
After my brother and I moved out, my father retired, and my mother passed on, he continued to live in that house for several more years before moving to his current house. During that time, I know that he continued his daily rituals until the day he left, although retirement left his schedule open to hours that were more flexible. Any addition or removal from the yard would be a topic of our frequent phone conversations. If I stopped by for a visit, I would spend at least part of that time walking around the yard where I grew up.
He has moved to a new house and he still spends a lot of time tending to his yard. Since I don’t see it quite as often, every visit is accompanied by a stack of photos of things in bloom or projects in progress. I know he still enjoys the design and fulfillment of landscaping and things growing.
I miss the old yard, though. I could walk out into the middle it and look at the trees that I climbed and fell from. I could spot the location of the bases on the baseball field and the location of the badminton court. I could look at the shrub in the middle of it all that I always jumped over as I ran back toward the house, when it was shorter and I could jump higher. I could stand in that yard and be home again.