Domestic Bliss 

When I grew up and returned to my first backyard, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I was stunned at how flat, rectangular and ordinary it was. I was 30-something then, a mother a few times over, and I had forgotten that the quality of backyards lay in the imaginations of the people who played and lived there.

My backyard ended at a concrete wall that dropped off into the backyard the next street down. From our side, it was a launch pad for flying stunts, though it was barely 3 feet tall. It was the perfect hiding place for a summer night's game of Kick the Can. On hot summer days, we laid out mud pies to bake on its flat top.

The front yard trees on our street of new houses were spindly adolescent transplants. But behind the garage in my backyard stood two mature maple trees I remembered as a forest. I spent many hours hiding in the lush shadows of our backyard "forest," when I didn't want to play with my brother and sisters, when I felt like escaping the unyielding sky, when I felt like standing next to something so immeasurably larger than me that the only proper response was silence.

My family's second backyard shared a fence with the elementary schoolyard, and gave me a tree perch from where I could spy on the whole neighborhood. A year later, another backyard gave me the miracle of a creek. Barely a moving sliver of water for most of the year, it was nonetheless enough of a creek to harbor toads and to feed dense gnarly foliage on its banks, so thick you had to move it aside roughly to get to the water. A trip across the backyard, barely 40-feet square, landed me in a place of wet adventure and mystery.

We moved again, to a small Tennessee town where our neighborhood, set on the far edge, had no street lights. In our backyard, pear and cherry trees planted by a former owner smelled sickly sweet in the summer, and provided the perfect place to be kissed for real by a neighbor boy in hallowed, fermented darkness.

Another move, my last with my family, to Memphis where our backyard connected with a huge field behind a large, suburban Methodist church. The boyfriend who taught me to make out until my lips were numb and swollen, the one who was always in trouble, who was forever failing a class but could draw and sing like a dream, pulled down the flimsy wire mesh fence at the far end of the backyard so we could jump over to Mullins Methodist field and lie in the grass beneath the stars. We snuck cigarettes, blowing smoke rings into the damp air, the grass our pillow and mattress.

For three years of her early childhood, my daughter's backyard was a Hawaiian mountain top, dotted with plumeria trees and awesome coconut palms, where wild boars came out at night to raid the garbage cans. My sons were toddlers in a heavily wooded Nashville backyard that sloped dramatically downhill, providing momentum for their short legs and plenty of tumbles through the inevitable piles of rotting leaves.

That backyard had not been tamed in many years. A sculptor had once lived there and shards of shattered ceramic casts lay hidden just beneath the black soil. Under a giant oak tree stood the crumbling remains of a face-to-face wooden glider, most of the white paint peeled off, birds' nests built in the crevices where the caving roof attached to the frame. The Mims sisters, schoolteachers who lived there for 40 years before going to a retirement home, were nature lovers, and they called the backyard "the bird sanctuary." I imagined them swinging at dusk, after supper, beneath the giant oak, dropping bread crumbs from their leftover biscuits.

Now I've moved to a house whose backyard is a tiny, sad, dusty square surrounded by sick elms, a garage and a tall fence. It has no story. It begs to be loved. Every day I look at it and try to imagine it transformed into a cool sitting place for me and my sons. I'll plant a bush with berries for the birds in the corner. Trellised bean vines will cover the peeling garage wall. A tangled patch of wildflowers in the sunny spot next to the door. And maybe, in the shade of the house, a face-to-face wooden glider painted white. Then we'll see what happens.

-- kathryn@csindy.com


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