Here in the northeast United States, we are at the crest of summer. There are very hot and humid days, rainstorms thick with thunder and lightening, and evenings that thrum with crickets like the reverb of a bass amp. Fireflies still flick and tantalize the dogs who fancy a blinking morsel captured in snapping jaws.
It is a time of abundance in the garden, as it struggles to survive with the heat of direct sun for twelve hours a day and torrential rains the next. Our little garden is just a triangle of a plot, shaped just like a narrow wedge of cheese. We gained it through the taking down of a 100 year old tree, one of the many that dotted the neighborhood, trees that were enormous, vastly branched, towering stories above our homes, their aged roots thick and gnarly, lifting sidewalks like playing cards helter skelter in a child's game. One by one, they began to fall - victims of age, decay, microbursts, hurricanes, and sewer lines ensnaring their roots. Our tree was decayed and dangerous and when it was taken down and the sickening sweet smell of rot filled out heads, plunging me back 40 years to the removal of a great elm on my parents' front lawn that had lost a branch in a storm and revealed its cancer.
No one wanted these great survivors to be felled, but over the years they became lethal weapons, on several occasions missing houses and cars - and people - by inches as they fell with a thunder that shook our homes. Those that did not fall were wisely sacrificed by responsible neighbors, though mourned. A few refuse to see the wisdom, keeping others in threat of disaster. We, ourselves, hold our breath at every storm as several remain next door and most lean toward our home.
I've digressed into some history, but nevertheless, I had a point minutes ago to tell you that our garden sprung up after a tree came down and the cracked and tilting sidewalk was jackhammered and hauled away. We laid a serpentine path of paved brick and were left with a peculiar narrow wedge that flanged widest at the edge of the property and narrowed to a point by the porch.
When we first dug out the garden, we wanted to remove a rotting split rail fence that separated our yard from our neighbor's. He was an older man, retired, alone in his house having outlived his wife, and children grown and gone. He was one of the generation that spent their lives working hard, a traveling salesman in fact, and now had so much time to spare, too much time of course, for someone with more life behind than in front.
He was the neighborhood mayor, trimming branches that hung too low over the sidewalk; planting saplings that sprung up in gardens; and well into his 80's, climbed a long ladder propped against the row of cherry trees that divided our properties and delivered coffee cans of fruit to our back doors. He was opinionated and strong, assertive and sorrowful. We invited him for birthday cake and sent over dinners at times. My mother knew his wife, who had died from breast cancer some 25 years before. He spoke of his job, traveling all over the states as a salesman, away from home, his children and wife. Now he could only fill up the house with his collections and tools and paper from a long career that supported them all.
As our garden grew, he became edgy over our plantings encroaching onthe far side of his wide lawn. He propped up the split rail fence with odds and ends of pipe one day right before we had planned to take it down. We were annoyed and hurt - we did not do all this work to look at old PVC pipe and ripped it down one Saturday morning and he came over to ask why. There is an old chain link fence where the split rail ended and I encouraged a pretty variety of privet to grow thick and tall to obscure it because there was no money to replace the fence. One Saturday morning he buzzed it all back with an electric hedge clipper, shearing it down to stubble against the fence. I cried and my husband told me to let it go, he was just an old man clinging to the last vestiges of control.
Soon enough, he was not well enough to do much of anything outside. We came home one day and witnessed the row of cherry trees cut down and the logs and branches being carted away. He could no longer climb the trees and could not bear to think of the mess of unpicked cherries ripening and falling on the lawn to rot and draw bees. We were relieved that we'd never see him climbing a shaky ladder again, but wondered if there wasn't a way those beautiful trees could have been spared.
He now spent his afternoons sitting on a yellow bench on the front porch. While walking the dogs one day, my husband was beckoned over. Don't worry about the garden, our neighbor said, spread it out as wide as you like. He was past the point of worrying over his property boundaries or collecting the fruit of his labors or policing the sidewalks of hazards. He began to be forgetful, to lose his strength, to have a softer smile and not always remember our names. An aide was employed to care for him and he stubbornly took walks around the block with her, bundled in a heavy sweater in midsummer, sitting on his walker when he became winded, admiring the neighborhood dogs, smiling and waving at the kids on bikes.
His children began to get things in order. They kept up the house beautifully, employed a gardener, fixed the porches, painted, and quietly cleaned out crate after crate from just the garage. His 90th birthday was celebrated on the sidelawn under one of the saplings that had grown quite tall. Eventually, we rare saw him outside at all and in the last two years not at all, and only had news of him from his health aides aides or his children on the weekends.
Our garden grew, filling in as it aged and we along with it. We never widened it; by the time he spoke to my husband, we'd bought the cottage in Cape Cod and were busy getting that property cleared of weeds and overgrown bushes. We moved the perennials around and added new hydrangeas and weeded and mulched but left the size alone, realizing that as much as we could cram into the little bed, we didn't have the time or strength to keep up much more anyway.
The garden is overripe these days. The edging has gone to grass, japanese lanterns have invaded and are choking the rudbeckia. The anemones are overtaking the entire front edge, obscuring the ground cover, carnations, and yarrow. The Russian Sage has gone leggy and enormous and sprawls all over the hydrangeas, hiding them from view. There is a stubborn bush that we've never been able to fully dig out and now it is as high as the first branches on the crepe myrtle. The oak leaf hydrangeas are almost as high as the top of the first story windows and the lavender has gone woody and needs to be dug up and new plants put in.
I pick a few weeds each time I leave the house. I water the potted plants if the watering can is full. I narrow my eyes at the volunteer sunflowers that stake their claim year after year by the front porch; they have to be dug out permanently as their leaves mildew horrible and the flowers are tiny and not worth the stalks of dying leaves by the front door. The azaleas I painstakingly dug out when we created the garden have sprouted anew from the earth and have grown into full bushes again, competing with a large lace cap hydrangea and a new lilac bush. One of the azaleas is the flaming orange and red of a bird of paradise and I scream as I see it each spring, a glaring flame of color in my white and lavender early spring garden.
Last week, our neighbor passed away. I don't know exactly how long they lived in the big white house on the corner, but I am sure he was there at least 50 years. Across the street is another neighbor, a widow of 92. She is the mother of a large family who is spread near and far; they attended the same catholic grammar school as my younger sisters and I. One of her sons was in all my classes. She is the last survivor of the 1950's mothers, last surviving baby boom mother on the street. Her children have white hair (as do I under the color). She gave up her car sometime this year. I don't run into her after work at the A&P anymore and she no longer drives herself to the noon mass but waits for her son to pick her up. She does still call me when she gets a New York Times by mistake, asking if it is ours and what she should do with it if it is not. I wondered how she felt when she heard the news that our other neighbor, her own neighbor for at probably 50 years was gone.
In the garden this weekend, we should dig up and divide and transplant and mulch and edge and weed and rip out the sunflowers and put in a beautiful box hedge and reline the other side of the path with new lavender and pretty ground cover and pull out the bed in front of the oak leafs as they are encroaching on the hosta border and heavens knows the side by the driveway is just a mess of old bushes and frail hydrangeas that do not get enough sun and a spindly white dogwood I want to chop down.
But today, in midsummer, I saw the first golden slant of autumn light in the backyard with the dogs. The morning was cool and damp and I shivered out at dawn while the dogs did their business. All that is left to bloom are the spindly sunflowers and the monster anemones, whose fragile white flowers will soon be the last flag raised to summer, and they will stay in bloom until the first hard frost. It is too late for major change. It is enough to enjoy what we have accomplished.
The big white house next door is empty now. We anticipate a large family moving in. We wonder and dread the thought of the property being subdivided and a new house being wedged in between us, as has been done elsewhere in the neighborhood. We look at our own house and begin long overdue projects, ones we really can't afford but most undertake because soon it will be our turn to cull the garden and weed the basement and haul treasure turned trash to the curb and call the kids to collect the spoils now instead of later. This weekend, though, is time enough to just sit and stare at the crazy magenta crepe myrtle, my souvenir from the south, and the under planting of golden daisies that clash so wonderfully and are so startling after the soft whites and lavenders of spring. The garden tells time better than my watch.