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Trading Wasteland for Eden MAG
Brooklyn brownstone houses are not known for their breathtaking gardens, at least not in my old neighborhood. I grew up on a street whose idea of nature extended to the weeds overrunning the yards, rotting oak trees along the curb, and looping, faded vines growing on buildings. The backyards were as wild and neglected as the streets of Sunset Park. Gardening was for people who lived upstate or in rich neighborhoods. We found beauty in filling potholes or repaving sidewalks – man fixing man-made mistakes, bringing order to the bustling unpredictability of the lower middle class.
However, there was a place where a few elements of nature infiltrated our stubbornly urban existence, planting roots without us even realizing it. My backyard was beautiful in a scattered, careless sort of way. Some of my earliest memories include picking my grandmother's beloved tulips and bringing them to my first-grade teacher, ensuring my place as teacher's pet. I remember my brief obsession with marigolds in second grade, when my dad bought dozens of packets of seeds. We spent a day planting and then promptly forgot about them. When the yard burst out in scattered patches of orange and yellow, we proclaimed it a miracle.
There were more miracles in that strange excuse for a garden. My father came home once with two peach trees; he gave one to the family next door and planted the other in a deserted corner of our yard. He threw dirt on it and forgot about it, like the marigolds. The neighbors cherished their tree as if it was a gift from above and tended it carefully, buying special soil and fertilizer and things people who care about their gardens use. The following spring, all of their peaches rotted, while we got perfect ones. My mother made peach sorbet and shared it with them.
Our yard was one of the few that had grass. Most of the houses on our block had dug up their straggly lawns and poured concrete. Other yards had basketball hoops and small plastic pools, some with plots of soil, but we had a large, square plot of unruly grass that was impossible to maintain. The grass gave our yard a jungle-like quality, often growing taller than my sister and me and as wild and untamed as my curly hair. Sometimes, I would chuck toys out there and send my more adventurous sister after them. She would emerge scratched and dirty but triumphant. I found it impossible to get within two feet of that grass because of my fear of snakes. But I liked to watch the tall blades shake and rattle as my sister fought her way through. I could imagine her as an explorer or a hunter, someone on a dangerous journey or epic quest. I liked epic quests.
I loved the smell of that grass whenever my father got the urge to cut it. Most of the time, I resented it, because I wanted to have one of those yards with a pool or a basketball hoop. I wanted concrete. But whenever Daddy got the weedwhacker out and attacked that monstrosity with the ferociousness of a grizzly bear, I always felt like the luckiest girl on the block, just because of that smell. Concrete doesn't smell fresh like spring. Concrete doesn't really have a smell.
We kept the grass cut for a long time when my dad brought home a pool table (who knows where he got it) and tossed it out there like the peach tree. It acted like a magnet for our family, drawing us into the yard whenever the weather allowed. Suddenly, the yard was a rec room. Our friends always wanted to come over to play, even if some were not tall enough to see over the table, and none of us really knew how to play.
We had barbecues when Dad's friends came over to play pool. We put torches and lanterns up around the porch and nearly set it on fire one night. We suddenly became “yard people,” a concept that had been foreign to us most of our lives.
My mother grew tomatoes and cucumbers that year, and the peaches came in great as always. I went through a purple phase and insisted on azaleas and morning glories, and even as improbable as it was, everything grew. It was more than just a miracle. It felt like the pool table was some kind of green thumb. In my head, it goes together, the bright green velvet of the table against the colorful backdrop of that implausible landscape.
Not long after that summer, my dad got a job in southern Pennsylvania, moved there, and eventually started a new family. He told us stories about hunting and horses and lawnmowers. His new yard didn't have a pool table or an abused peach tree or miraculous marigolds. It has neatly trimmed, bright green grass and not much else. Even though I've been there, I cannot say what kind of flowers those gardens contain. Something pink, bright, and obviously cared for. They fade into the background of my father's new Eden, in contrast to the way our marigolds exploded from the gray wasteland of Brooklyn.
I wish I could say we stayed rooted in the yard after my father's departure, since to say otherwise would suggest he was the only reason it ever came alive. But the truth is that fall comes, and then the frost, and just like fathers leave, gardens die. By the time spring started inching in, we were preparing to move to an apartment, and we had no time to be yard people. We knew the new owners would dig up everything and pour in concrete. There was a courtyard in our new apartment building with fairly well-managed shrubs and flowers and an abandoned tennis court, but it wasn't the same as having our own yard.
I'm not the type of person who wishes for the typical American dream: a house, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence. I'm much more of a cat person, and I'm okay with potholes and fire hydrants, decrepit trees, and straggly weeds. But it's a secret wish of mine to have a garden some day that I can tend with someone who is special to me.
When I see a marigold, I smile and think of my dad and happier times, those few years of my life when I was one of the most special people in the world to him. I want a new yard some day in a new wasteland, wild and unlikely and imperfect like we were.