It has been a warm night. I hear voices through windows that have been open all night, as I pass by on my morning walk though the neighborhood.
Rain was forecast earlier in the week but has not come. This is somewhat unusual for Labor Day weekend in our corner of the continent. It is not by accident that every year this city holds a music festival on this holiday, named after an umbrella.
The north end neighborhood where I live has changed relatively little in fifty-odd years. When the city was founded in the nineteenth century, this was still woods, a days ride from the bay where the first sawmills, banks and mercantile stores were built. As it grew outward, to the north, streets were graded, streetcar lines extended and houses built.
Each generation has put its own face on these homes and their small city lots. In the post-war years, the pent-up energy for anything new replaced the struggles of the Depression and WWII. Fences were built or replaced. Carports were erected. Concrete patios, an icon of the fifties, were poured in many back yards. Later, during a horrible time in the seventies, homes were remodeled to look more modern, losing their original character. Some were bulldozed to make way for two skinny, featureless houses on lots that had formerly contained only one. Thankfully, the next two decades saw an appreciation and revival of the older homes, not updated but restored, albeit to a standard they never knew, even when new.
But many remain as they always were, unpretentious homes for families.
It is the voices of these families I hear through the open windows as I walk, the sounds of lives being lived.
Several generations have passed through these neighborhoods. I bought this house from my mother at a time when most people on this street were of her age, some ready, others unwilling but needing to give up home ownership. In the ten years since, young families have replaced all but one of those older homeowners. There is one widowed lady who now lives alone up the street on the corner, a charming woman who frequently passes by our house with her little terrier on a leash. Everywhere else on the block, toys fill the yards. The families and kids congregate all though the summer, parents out on the sidewalks, children in strollers, on kick-scooters or miniature bicycles with training wheels. One dad and his son are frequently seen heading to the schoolyard in the next street over, both with their elbow and knee pads, helmets and skateboards.
Standing back, there is a continuity that exists beyond the generations. We think of ourselves as owners of these homes but they outlive us; we are their custodians.
Homes have a useful purpose in our lives but they also have meaning beyond usefulness. We recognize the rooms we have filled with furnishings we have chosen. We see, everywhere, the personality of each person in the household. The color on each wall, the oil painting of a Paris street scene, the brilliant red dishes and cookware in the kitchen, the books on each shelf, all are signatures, defining who we are. The personalization extends outdoors; the garden surrounding each home speaks to the personality of the people who live within. Stepping stones across a lawn hold memories of the day they were placed there. The sculpture of a ballet dancer in repose becomes part of the texture of our living space. Colors on siding and walls recall times of stepladders, drop cloths and paint buckets.
These meanings have the importance we ascribe to them.
As I sit in my Adirondack chair in the back garden listening to the waterfalls and watching the chickadees and finches at the birdbath, I remember what this same space looked like under my parent’s stewardship. I can see where my father put up a sheet metal garden shed, the place by the fence where he stacked firewood, sawing off one of the few trees, leaving only a five-foot stump to support the rain cover over the cordwood. Most of all I look out at a space that was covered almost entirely by his motorhome. All that was left was this patio and what remained of the lawn. That was it. Back yards, for my Dad, were places that had practical uses.
When we bought this house from my Mother, one unlikely transformation resulted in another. First, Jeni became interested in gardening; then, her interest grew into a lush and beautiful landscape. With the exception of the patio, there is nothing left to suggest its former incarnation. From my chair, I look out at trees which did not exist when my parents lived here. Across from me, a red Japanese maple arches graceful over the lawn. To the left, a flowering cherry with deep purple foliage serves as a backdrop for the apple tree. Below the new trees I see foliage that is deeply green, contrasting with pale, variegated shades; purple grasses and flax; the lime-green and ivory of coleus and hostas; flowers of every color and description. The music of falling water comes from three places at once, masking sounds from the streets. At the center, a lawn curves gracefully along the borders of the garden. There are no straight lines in this garden. If it weren’t for the barely-seen fence, there would be no way to know this space is bound in a rectangular shape. It is an intimate garden, but one that draws the eye deceptively toward a depth that does not exist. It looks natural and unbound, bigger than it really is.
This garden is tremendously important to me. It is more than a place of great beauty, more than a place of respite and tranquility, more than the utterly complete transformation of what had been a parking space for an RV.
It is art.
It is specifically art made possible only by Jeni’s hand. It has been, for most of the years we have been here, the canvas for her creativity. It is almost entirely a reflection of her. I cannot separate this garden from Jeni. It is part of who she is, an extension of her imagination, her talent and her incredibly hard work. The wonder that I feel for what she has done is renewed whenever I spend time here. My gratitude and appreciation for what she has achieved never leaves me.
My experience in this place may not translate to subsequent custodians. I have no way to know what some future occupants of this house may make of all that is important to me. For all I know, Jeni’s wonderful garden may have more importance for them as a parking place for a motorhome.
But it doesn’t matter.
The meanings I have assigned to this place are mine alone. My appreciation of my wife and her brilliantly realized creation is bound by our time here, lives shared in this place. Other generations will come and go. This place will continue and others will apply to it their own personalities and signatures. Other meanings will be assigned by other people, reflecting what is important to them, marking events and milestones in their lives.
It is not this place or these things that are important; it is us, our lives, our love, our shared experiences. What passes between us here and now; that is what is important.