Looking through the lens of a dogwood tree just to see if the view across the street is any different. It’s not really. The houses are the same houses that my grandparents saw when they were alive and living here. But the people who live inside of those houses are different.
Change comes slow to village neighborhoods and then, when it starts, it is swift.
You don’t feel it when your family is just starting out: when your son or daughter, the first one, is newborn or a toddler, old enough to explore the sidewalk, holding tight to your hand, but not old enough to hop on the bus at 7:30AM for school.
You measure time alongside of home improvements: last year you have a fence put in, the year after, you replace the roof or have new windows installed.
There are neighborhood parties to celebrate the beginning and the end of summer. You close the street off to traffic, bring lawn chairs and picnic food. Some of the neighbors remember my grandparents because they are/were in that first wave of people who moved in … and almost 40 or 50 years later, they’re still here.
Most of the trees and the plantings in my yard were put in by my grandfather and I give them up reluctantly. The raspberry patch was the first to go. The rhubarb that grew along the back fence may have been next.
During those first years, we “harvested” grapes and peaches. It was easy. All we had to do was keep track of the ripening process; the grape vines were so old that they took care of themselves and the peach tree did pretty much the same thing.
We had a lot of bees.
One hot summer afternoon, there was a cracking sound followed by a heavy thump. Without any prompting from us, a pretty substantial tree limb from that peach tree dropped to the ground. That’s when we discovered that the tree was dying. It was a small enough tree that my husband could take it out all by himself.
There was a 30/40 foot tall fir tree that stood in the side yard. Back in his day, my grandfather used to hand trim it. He’d lean a ladder up against the side of the tree, extend it so that the top of the ladder reached the top of the tree and up he’d climb.
It drove my grandmother nuts. She thought he’d hurt himself, but he never did.
They raised two sons in the depression years when money was tight and like a lot of their neighbors, they had a garden. My grandfather dug up three quarters of the side yard when they moved here and planted another one.
His strawberries were famous in the neighborhood and the next-door neighbors had picking rights. I remember one year he planted corn.
He had two rows of peonies that marked off the garden. The row nearest to the fir tree must have pissed him off because he took it out. But, the row along the back fence is growing strong. The purple shoots are standing tall, having worked their way out of the hardened soil in the past month.
They’re mostly dark pinks with one or two whites mixed in and I’m pretty sure that they’re going on 50 years old.
Long before my husband and I moved in, there was a tulip bed that took up the entire length of the side yard. There are just a few of them left, coming up on our side of the chain link fence that we had installed when we got tired of monitoring two dogs without fencing.
Back in the day, when we moved in, we had one rather large Great Dane and two black and white cats. Our son had just turned three. Diamond, the dane, could lay out in the yard tied to the peach tree with a long length of rope. He liked to sun himself, and as there were almost no other dogs in the neighborhood, he pretty much had things to himself.
Not too much excited him. He didn’t feel the need to chase squirrels and he wasn’t interested in birds. He liked to watch what was going on around him. The kids getting off of the afternoon school bus would go home and tell their parents that “those new people up the street had a small black bear in their yard.”
Our cats had the run of the neighborhood without any territorial squabbles with other cats because there were no other cats. And they could be outside cats because nobody thought that was a terrible thing.
My grandparents didn’t have pets. They had the house and the garden and their village lifestyle to keep up with. My grandmother kept the house and my grandfather kept the yard and the gardens.
When we bought their house, after my grandfather died and my grandmother moved down to Georgia to live with one of her sons and his family, I found things that they’d packed up and stored in the attic or kept out in the garage. Christmas ornaments, rolls of wallpaper, empty glass canning jars; somehow, I ended up with a good set of Revere Ware pots, a frying pan and an ice cream scoop — all of which still get used.
My grandfather’s tools still hang up on one of the garage walls. The wheel barrel that he made still gets trundled outside when we’re doing yard work. Each time we make some kind of change to the yard or to the house, I look up at the sky and ask if he thinks this is okay.
Sometimes, I just tell him to put a lid on it; that I’ll get around to putting a new roof on or seeing that the stucco gets repaired. He might have a point about the roof. Up in the attic, firmly penciled onto one of the attic beams, is the day, month and year when he had the roof replaced.
Knowing my grandfather, he had his hand in that. Which is partly why it’s hard for me to bite the bullet and get the roof done. When that happens, one of the last visible evidences of my grandfather will disappear.
He wasn’t sentimental when it came to keeping up his house or the garden. He would have replaced the roof a long time ago. Despite that practical aspect of being a home owner, it’s still a struggle to make changes around here.
When the small Mountain Ash tree that grew in the front yard died and had to be taken down, three or four years went by before I could figure out what to plant in its place.
I knew that I’d be planting something that would change the landscape for the next 20, 30 or 40 years and I wasn’t sure that I wanted that responsibility. Which is kind of silly when I add up the number of years that my family has been living here.
In this house.
In this neighborhood.
In this village.
Was it the responsibility I didn’t want or was it the realization that what I planted now I most likely wouldn’t be around to see in 40 years?
When we finally decided on two dogwood trees, one with white blossoms and one with pink, it was with a nod to the gorgeous, mature dogwood tree that grew outside of the house that I grew up in.
In a neighborhood.
In a college town
about 45 minutes west of Philadelphia.
The fact that I grew up in a small town that has similarities to the town I now live in hasn’t escaped me. In fact, it smacks me in the face every day. There are days when I love this connection. And there are days when I wonder what I’ve lost.
Somehow, without my realizing it, I’ve come to use what grows in my yard as a measuring stick.
So that when I measure the growth of those two dogwood trees each spring, I find myself taking a silent inventory of what used to be here and I wonder about what’s to come. [gplus count=”true” size=”Medium” ]