I stand on the side walk deliberating. Shall I knock or walk away? Every door and window is covered with black burglar bars. The sign in the front window reads, “Smile, you’re on camera.”
Everything about this house screams, “Go AWAY!” But I really want to go in the back yard.
I NEED to go in the back yard.
I throw my shoulders back and try to affect an air of confidence. As I climb the steps to the front stoop, an old black and white photograph of Bear Boy and Susie momentarily flashes across my mind, both propped next to the front door against the shingled exterior of the house. I was four when I asked Daddy to take a picture of my teddy bears one Sunday afternoon. The red shingles are gone now, replaced by brick.
Mother's little garden under the living room window is gone now too. Looking around, I almost catch a whiff of the smelly pink Vigaro fertilizer she used to spade around her flowers, mostly zinnias and spirea. Though the yard and house are neat and well kept, nothing here suggests personality, warmth or even life.
The place seems dead.
A tangled, dusty spider web hanging between the burglar bars and door frame tells me the front door hasn’t been opened in months, if not years. I knock on the glass, listen and wait. Nothing.
Well, I’m here, I think, might as well try the kitchen door. I walk under the new car port attachment on the side of the house, I recognize the outside storage room door, noting the pad lock. That little storage room is where Daddy kept not only his tools and lawn mower, but his wine making supplies. The disapproving Baptist preacher next door was forever ‘borrowing’ tools as an excuse to get in that little room and check up on how much wine Daddy was making.
Standing on the back steps, I remember two tall metal garbage cans next to the kitchen door and the simultaneous sense of horror and fascination I felt as I watched Mother cut the head off a snake coiled in one of them.
I knock on the back door, hard. A white sedan’s in the car port; someone must be inside the house. While I wait, I take note of the camera focused on me from overhead. A little beyond the car port, my eyes light on the drunken tilt of a tall metal cross bar in the back yard. Oh my God, Mother’s clothes line is still here!
After several minutes, the inside door opens, ever so slowly. An ancient looking woman in a pink cotton housecoat peers through the thick glass and metal bars of the burglar door. Her weak blue eyes look startled, suspicious and afraid.
Oh Lord, she’s scared of me! I bet she lives alone and is terrified of everybody, hence the burglar bars and cameras. She’s converted her house into a fortress.
I try to sound friendly. “Hello, I say. I used to live here, in this house, when I was a little girl back in the ‘50s. Do you mind if I go in your back yard? I’d like to see it again.”
Her mouth hangs open. Her hands fumble, as if trying to communicate something, but I don’t know what. Is she mute? Has she had a stroke? Something is wrong. “Can you hear me?” I ask.
I think she nods yes, but I’m not sure. I try again, speaking louder this time. “I lived in this house when I was a little girl and I’d like to go in your back yard. Is that okay?” Still mute, her head nods in slow motion and the door softly closes.
In the back yard, I lean against the clothesline and close my eyes.
My beautiful young mother strides across the grass carrying a big straw laundry basket. The basket is heaped with wet linens she's just washed and cranked through the wringer in the kitchen. Wearing a home made organdy apron, I watch her hang sparkling white sheets in the morning sun. She's singing, a hymn of course. “Wake up my brothers, sing in the sun shine. We’ll understand it, oh by and by.”
I open my eyes and look at the little green postage stamp of a yard. It seemed so big when I was a child. Mother used to dig up the ground behind the clothes line every spring and plant pink gladiola bulbs. We had a picnic table too. Esther and I used to drape quilts over the table and around the benches, then crawl inside and pretend we had a tent.
Gazing around the yard, I recall the home made wooden sand box Daddy made where I mounded wet sand over my feet and stirred sand soup in the aluminum sauce pan Mother gave me.
Finally I walk over to the far side of the house to look for the creek. It’s not much more than a trickle, hidden behind a screen of willows. When I was a child, it seemed immense as a river.
I can feel the old woman’s eyes watching me from behind the curtains. I should probably go. Walking back to my car, I take one last look at the tiny front yard and sidewalk.
Everything here seems so small, diminished by time.
When I was a little girl, the length of Atlanta Road was my world. To me, it seemed an enchanted, benevolent and beautiful place. Even today, in its ordinary and small homeliness, I still feel some of that enchantment. Why? Because Atlanta Road was the last place I saw my Mother happy. Or if not happy, at least not as sad as she soon became.
Looking up Atlanta Road from the house where I grew up. The church is one of the original army chapels dating from the Manhattan Project, 1943.