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Domestic Bliss

Out Back

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When I grew up and returned to my first back yard, in Bowling Green, Ky., I was stunned at how flat, rectangular and ordinary it was. I was 30-something then, a mother a few times over, and I had forgotten that the quality of back yards lay in the imagination of the people who played there.

My back yard ended at a concrete wall that dropped off to the back yard the next street down. From our side, the wall was a launch pad for flying stunts, though it was barely 3-feet tall. It was the perfect nighttime hiding place, and its flat top served as a solar oven where we laid out mud confections to bake on summer days.

Behind the garage in my back yard stood two mature maple trees I remembered as a forest. Our street was new when I was a kid, and the trees in the flat, square front yards were tiny transplants. I spent many hours hiding in the lush shadows of our backyard "forest" when I didn't want to play with my brother and sisters, when I felt like escaping the unyielding sky, when I felt like standing next to something so immeasurably larger than me that the only proper response was silence.

My family moved several times throughout my childhood and young adulthood. Our next back yard shared a fence with the schoolyard and gave me a tree perch where I could spy on the whole neighborhood. A year later, another back yard gave me the miracle of a creek. Barely a moving sliver of water for most of the year, this was nonetheless enough of a creek to harbor exotic toads on its banks, and dense gnarly foliage so thick you had to move it aside roughly to get to the water. A trip across the back yard landed me in a place of wet adventure and mystery.

We moved again, to a small Tennessee town where our neighborhood, set on the far edge, had no streetlights. In our back yard, pear and cherry trees planted by a former owner smelled sickly sweet in the summer and provided the perfect place to be kissed for real by a neighbor boy, in hallowed, fermented darkness.

Another move, my last with my family, to Memphis, where our back yard connected with a huge field behind a large, suburban Methodist church. The boyfriend who taught me to make out until my lips were numb and swollen, the one who was always in trouble, who was forever failing a class but could draw and sing like a dream, pulled the flimsy wire mesh fence at the far end of the back yard down so we could jump over to Mullins field and lie in the grass beneath the stars. We snuck cigarettes, blowing smoke rings into the damp air, made out some more, then jumped back over the fence to the back yard.

My daughter's first back yard was a heavily wooded, steep hill leading up to a rarely used Boy Scout lodge, the source of many urban myths in our Nashville neighborhood. During her first years of elementary school, her back yard was a Hawaiian hilltop, dotted with plumeria trees and awesome coconut palms. Her brothers were preschoolers in another heavily wooded Nashville back yard, this one sloping dramatically downhill, providing momentum for their short legs and plenty of tumbles through the inevitable piles of rotting leaves.

That particular house, as I recall, was chosen and bought for the stories the back yard held. When I first viewed the house, I walked out the downstairs back door, onto a yard that had not been tamed or domesticated for decades. Beneath a giant oak tree stood the crumbling remains of a face-to-face wooden glider, most of the white paint peeled off, birds' nests built in the corners where the caving roof attached to the frame. The two sisters who lived there before us were nature lovers, neighbors told me, and they called the back yard "the bird sanctuary." Their brother, a sculptor, had used the basement as a studio and buried broken cast-offs in the back yard. Some 40 years later, every plunge of a shovel into that rich dirt unearthed pieces of shattered ceramic.

My back yard now was a dusty rectangle just a little over a year ago, bereft of life. Loads of composted manure have been worked into the compacted surface and last summer the back yard saw crops of tomatoes, squash and pole beans. A birdbath and bird feeder swarm with activity these warm spring mornings. My back yard is alive now, fertile ground for the next generation of stories.

All it needs, I think, is a face-to-face, white wooden glider, for a quick swing after supper.

-- A version of this essay first appeared in November, 1999

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