It’s early in the evening on a Sunday, and I’m sitting out on our back deck with Jean-Paul, who is reading a guitar magazine. One of our cats, Tribbs, is out on a leash but is under careful watch; we have been extra vigilant while he is out on his leash because of the increase in coyote sightings in suburban areas around Boston.
I have often thought that I could write an entire book about this somewhat odd and eccentric backyard. Our house is located in the middle of a hill, so the yard slopes downward from south to north. An elderly couple, Buddy and Grace, tend a vegetable garden behind their wooden fence at the top of the yard. They remember a time when there were no fences in this neighborhood; their children used to sled from the top of the hill to the bottom – straight through all of the neighbors’ back yards. But things have changed over the past fifty years. More houses have been built. Fences have been sprung up. The perpendicular street at the bottom of the hill, which used to be lined with homes that had yards backing up to the Charles River, is now flanked on the river side by industrial warehouses. One warehouse houses equipment and offices for the local utility company. A lone house still stands in the middle of the warehouses; Grace told me that the owners of that house refused to sell.
Waltham, the “home of the industrial revolution,” still has an industrial, working-class character. It was once famous for the manufacture of watches, and in honor of that history a pub on the main street is called “The Watch City Brewery.” Old mills still stand near the river in the center of town; some have been transformed into condos, office space, or artists’ lofts. During World War II Grace worked at a Raytheon factory in town that no longer exists. Another neighbor, Mary, came to America as a student from Honduras and married an Italian man. She teaches me phrases in Spanish; there is a huge Latin American community here, and certain streets remind me of San Juan in Puerto Rico. Mary’s husband lived with his parents in the house across the street for more than thirty years before his father died three years ago. His elderly mother speaks no English; when she arrived in Waltham she could get by with Italian. A “Sons of Italy” event hall still hosts parties on Saturday nights; a few streets away the French American Victory Club holds dances for the lingering French Canadian community. On our street alone there are three French Canadian families; one elderly couple returns to Canada every summer.
What diversity! I imagine if this town could talk, it would have a lot of stories to tell.
But our yard is living through its own ongoing story. When my husband’s mother first purchased this house as an investment, the entire property was run-down. When she became ill and we bought the house from her, it still needed plenty of work. She had replaced the decrepit back fence with a brand new white one, but other than that the yard remained unruly and overgrown. Although the upper part is lush and green, the area right behind the house is covered with old asphalt that once served as a driveway to a garage in the back. Weeds and grass now grow in patches through the asphalt. The garage fell down long ago; all that’s left is a cement floor surrounded by four rows of cinderblocks that have a large space in the front where the garage door must have been.
Because the yard slopes, walls had to be built to prevent erosion into the space that was leveled for the house. The previous owners used fallen telephone poles to shore up those walls, and those telephone poles are cracking now. Moss and ferns are emerging through the cracks. In one spot a pole has completely fallen off the wall, leaving nothing but dirt and roots.
We have made some improvements, of course. We have stained the back deck more than once, and I plant marigolds and impatiens around it every spring. In the fall I plant tulips and other bulbs. We’ve cut back some of the overgrowth near the back fence and have planted grass over a bare plot of ground that used to be a vegetable garden but had long gone to weed.
I’d love to say that I appreciate the yard for exactly what it is, that I have affection for the old garage foundation, the weed-filled asphalt, and the mossy telephone pole walls. But the truth is I’m a bit more spoiled than that. I don’t like the sight of asphalt. I bristle at the sound of music from neighboring parties in the summer and of basketballs hitting pavement in nearby driveways. My wish is to have nothing but nature around me; my husband teases me because if I had things my way, I wouldn’t see or hear another person or house, never mind any evidence of a previous family’s paved past.
But I do appreciate the stories that write themselves in this yard. A little white feral cat has made this place her home, and we care for her and are attempting to tame her. A family of skunks lives somewhere nearby and steals food from her feeding station at dusk every evening. We recognize the individual skunks by their stripes. Last summer a raccoon had her babies in the hollow of an old tree behind the fallen-down garage, and her four babies grew up here before disappearing to find homes of their own. An opossum moved into the feral cat house one year, and lived there for some time; I was devastated when I found the elderly creature dead near the little house, and I cried when my neighbor buried it for me. Lately, a groundhog shows up now and then and nibbles at the undergrowth. Buddy calls him a “varmint” but admits that he won’t harm him even though he eats Buddy’s vegetables.
In my mind, this yard is theirs so much more than it is ours. Their presence brings life to this little patch of land despite the asphalt and fences and telephone poles. Nature figures things out; it adapts better than I do. And when, someday, we leave this house, which I’ve accepted and made the best of but have never truly loved, my heart will break just a bit. I won’t want to leave the animals behind (don’t worry, one way or another we won’t leave the white cat, because we hope we will tame her by then).
Some stories just don’t feel like mine. The story of this yard extends long before my presence, and will extend long after. As I finish up this blog post the crickets are singing, and the sun, as it sets, is illuminating a tree at the top of the hill, making it glow orange among the green. Soon the moon will show up in the sky, and then the night will descend over everything.
I’m just here for a visit. I guess we all are.