An essay written about sixteen years ago, prior to the much more recent “A Very Fine House” on this site (Dec. 24, 2009). What was nostalgic to me in the 90s is even more so now…
My wife, our daughter, and I live 250 miles from Vandalia. We moved to the Ohio River Valley after a few years’ sojourn in northern Arizona. There, our lawn work consisted mainly of moving rocks, but here in Kentucky the climate affords a wider range of activity. On springtime afternoons we set out flowers—impatiens, daffodils, “hens and chickens,” azaleas and the like. We pull weeds and try to coax into growth those certain pesky plants which drop leaves, as the joke goes, only on days ending in Y. We take turns mowing our large lawn. After a while we’re hot, dirty, and, to use my mother’s graphic rhyme, wringing wet with sweat. Our daughter Emily sits in her sandbox, a woman of leisure.
I listen to my mind as I work outside. When one mows or does other outdoor tasks, the lunacy of the human mind becomes obvious. The religion scholar Huston Smith cites a Hindu saying to the effect “that the movements of the mind as are purposeful and orderly as a cage filled with crazed, drunken monkeys.” Daydreams, images, feelings of insecurity, hatred, or joy rise to the surface so often that, psychologists say, one cannot concentrate single-mindedly for more than two or three seconds. I think of the “Proteus” chapter of Ulysses, where Stephen Dedalus’s mind wanders among philosophical problems (“Ineluctable modality of the visible”) and his feelings for the girls on the sand. Our minds are neurologically set to wander. (So much for those of us who earn a living speaking to audiences!) Yard work becomes a barometer for the state of your soul. How happy or miserable or angry or charitable are you as you work on those plants and blades of grass?
I’m beset with the disease nostalgia (etymologically that’s what it is), and so much of my manual daydreaming has to do with times past. Many of us could, in fact, write an entire autobiography around familiar lawns, fields, acreage, and house corners, the places where we’ve spent hours and years working and puttering. On sunny summer mornings when I was small, I’d come in and out of the house involved with swinging on the swing set or trading comic books with neighborhood boys or playing in my cousin’s house next door as we crawled inside Frigidaire boxes. Dad once attached four boards in the back yard and dumped sand into the box. In the heat of the day, assisted by a good, wet garden hose, my cousin and I spent hours squishing the sand through our fingers and toes. On hot summer nights, I loved to catch fireflies in the palms of my hands.
I still visit my parents’ home—a brick house of which I have fairly continuous memories from the time that we moved into it new in 1960. (It is not the first home I recall. Incredibly, I have a few memories of the small house in Bonnville, Illinois, where we lived while the Vandalia house was being completed. I was barely three at the time yet I recall walking down the quiet streets with Mom to the post office and crossing the railroad tracks. I also remember the television sitting beside the Christmas tree, and … a Budweiser commercial.) Early in 1960 Dad bought a new gold Cadillac, with fins. I remember the three of us pulling into the driveway of our new house with that new car, proud as we could be. Thereafter I played on the living room floor with a model Cadillac, running it into the wall with great pleasure, and “filling up” at the toy Texaco station (white box style, complete with a freestanding Texaco star).
The family home returns to me as surely as I return to it. The television programs during summer days: “Love That Bob,” “My Little Margie,” “The Lone Ranger,” Mom’s “soaps,” and especially “Captain Kangaroo.” The narrow kitchen window and the screen door with a fleur-de-lis aluminum pattern. The herbs and spices on the “lazy Susan,” the Youngstown Tappan oven, the shelves stocked with products of Crisco, Betty Crocker, Post, and Nabisco, Sunkist raisins and Morton salt. Simple specifics like the RCA stereo, Dad’s gun collection, his World War II histories, quite a lot of books, a dog-eared copy of Death of a President, ball-point pens with the names of local businesses, Mom’s philodendrons, and her mislaid sewing ruler which read “how wide is your smile” and the 5-and 6-inch standards were Martha Raye and Joe E. Brown. I never understood why you’d want to put a sewing ruler in your mouth. We rarely ate out; once in a while we had a Saturday evening treat of hamburgers at the small, brightly-lit Reaban’s stand at a highway wye and then we’d hurry home for Jackie Gleason on our black-and-white Philco. Once in a while we’d have TV dinners—which were terrible in the early Sixties—but more often Dad, a cook in the army, fixed big meals with leftovers. Later that evening I’d fall asleep on Mom’s lap as she watched Gunsmoke.
Such automotive and middle-class memories inevitably surface as I daydream through childhood landscapes. Like Wordsworth’s “first affections and shadowy recollections” they are tenacious if not specifically “intimations of immortality.” They are intimations of mortality, of passing time. But they are also intimations of grace, in a way, reflections of psychological growth as one learns to interpret reality — a reality which I knew first as a small-town milieu. That is one reason why, now that I’ve long since moved away and have a family of my own, I retain qualities of our family home among all the unconscious aspects of my daily routine, the way I prefer the kitchen drawers arranged as spoons-forks-knives, my habit (Mom’s too) of closing the drapes at the first hint of twilight, my unscientific preference for Tide laundry detergent (Mom’s favorite), my selection of news from NBC, CBS, and then ABC (our television antenna pulled in the St. Louis affiliates KSD, KMOX, and KTVI in that order of strength), my enjoyment of classical music (the Huntley-Brinkley reports ended with Beethoven’s Ninth, which I liked) and my pleasure (without a trace of threatened masculinity) in cooking meals. I still hate green beans, for Dad canned them in bulk each summer.
Our family home is not “lost” to me so it has not retreated to the past as our backyard has. I don’t return to the yard, somehow. The yard—its sunburned grass and spruce tree, its butterflies and dandelions, the broken sidewalks on the west side of the house, the woodpile, the garden-has never seemed so boundless and free as it did in the days of my childhood. For many of us, yards are the places where we first know things like light, water, earth, animals, insects, weather, construction, and the number’ of toes on each foot—then we grow away from such places, secure in our knowledge of space and time and the world.
Before the Copernican revolution of adulthood, though, our yard was a very fine place. I remember that Dad built his tool shed in 1964 and it was promptly preempted as a club house by us unwashed neighborhood boys who had “helped” with the building. Out of a boyish sense of junky aesthetics I nailed onto the shed’s beams several Illinois license plates, a 1940s Nebraska State Route 31 sign, and a great yellow R X R sign, which Dad had found somewhere, discarded. We boys dug holes to the Center of the Earth, starting in Dad’s garden between the tomatoes and strawberries. We hid inside the shed and plotted attacks upon the Mole People or the Martians who hid in the trees beyond the yard. A small rock that I’d painted metallic green served well as kryptonite with which to slay the imaginary malefactors. (That stuff works on everyone.) The evening news, the Saturday matinees, the simple, violent world view of Saturday cartoons had funneled down into children’s play, where we boys, full of fun and Original Sin, made of them full use. One summer I blew a hole in Dad’s picnic table with an M-80 amid some elaborate, crime-fighting scenario. But, innocently enough, if we decided to transform ourselves into superheroes it was the easiest thing in the world to fly.
The lawn and vicinity seemed to join in a larger land beyond the echoes of the ten-penny nails we pounded into two-by-fours and tree trunks. Horses grazed on the undeveloped farmland across the street—my folks always called it “the old Sonnemann place.” The thick brush of that area was fine for games of jungle warfare. A rotted sign for Stag beer leaned uncomfortably in the overgrown fence row separating the Sonnemann property from the cultivated field beyond—a leaning testimony that our street had, until fairly recently, been the blacktop out of town. The Stag sign deflected imaginary bullets quite well. What kid ever thinks, as would an adult, that he shouldn’t cut across a neighbor’s yard? My parents lived just down the street from the city park, and how easy it was to hike from the lawn across other lawns to the park—with its swing sets and trees, its creek in which we boys fished for “crawdads” with pieces of raw bacon, and its spray-painted (“Class of 61”) concrete pedestals for a long-dismantled railroad tower—great things on which to climb and hide and play cowboys or spacemen. The gravel drive of the park crossed the creek over a culvert and proceeded to the next park beneath the tarred wood of the ICRR Bridge. We hiked that gravel path in the shade of the cedars and maples, loudly singing
Jingle Bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg
and (to the tune of the theme from “Bridge over the River Kwai”):
Comet, it makes your mouth so clean!
Comet, it makes your teeth turn green!
Comet, it makes you vomit,
So buy Comet and vomit today!
We howled at the sublimity of our wit. We hid in park pavilions then crawled among clover and honeysuckle in elaborate games of make believe. We hurled dead snakes at one another. We climbed on the slides; each slide step formed the company’s name, “American.” Other times, on burning-hot summer days, I hiked through the yards and parks to the Vandalia swimming pool. The chlorine-rich air was filled with loud laughter and splashing and the tinny guitars of Sixties music, to this day, songs like “Help!” and “Paperback Writer” and “Day Tripper” and “Satisfaction” sound as though they should be played through a swimming pool’s cheap speakers.
Not far beyond our home, the streets lost their names as they merged with country roads and fed into US. 40. We did not even have a house number until the 1970s. Lonely power lines traced undulating lines across the sky; trees and shrubs obscured the mailboxes of our neighbors; I watched the sparrows, mourning doves, robins, and mockingbirds as they lit upon our small trees. There was a cluttered view of the old water tower to the south and sunsets to the west. On summer nights when the air was heavy and I was tired from play, I could hear the trains rumble in the distance. I could hear noises from the pool, clapping and laughing, and the buzz of model airplanes. Eventually our area was developed more fully. Commercially there was once only the drive-in theater behind the tangled vines of its high fence; the small market, motel and roadside cafe up on U.S. 40; and the “Dairy King” ice cream place where we—my parents, my cousin next door and her brother and parents—got cones on hot, bright evenings. The Dairy King eventually disappeared; the motel became a nursing home; the drive-in (sadly) went the way of most such theaters and finally was replaced, after several years of neglect, by a new subdivision; and both sides of 40 became lined with farm implement dealers, wholesale stores, and equipment outlets. A Purina plant came to Vandalia in the early 1960s and was built there, too. Beyond was the newly formed Vandalia Lake, and traffic by our house picked up. Kids older than I raced in the heavy twilight heading to the drive-in or to the lake, and some met in troubled love beneath the park pavilions where we once had played.
Eventually, too, my shyness reemerged from the rowdiness of childhood sports, so when I myself became driving-age and such twilight rendezvous began to matter, I often volunteered to mow my parents’ lawn, secondarily to help out around the house, primarily to gain a socially-acceptable tan upon my fair, acne-ridden complexion. Clad in cutoffs and sneakers I mowed the long, narrow lot, avoiding the posts of the TV antenna, chipped bits of woodpile, the roofs drainpipes jutting out onto an unplanted flower bed, the protruding culvert beside the sunbaked mailbox upon its spray-painted metal pole, the honeysuckle vines and especially the rose bushes, and the rock beneath which, years before, I’d buried a dead pet salamander in a Cool Whip container. I carefully avoided the large rock collection I had gathered from family trips West. I pulled weeds from the coleus and moss rose which grew between my parents’ driveway and the neighbors, and the worn, cracked quality of the drive reminded me of old U.S. 40 that we always took to Grandma Crawford’s house. All the while I’d be daydreaming, in a lonely, self- involved kind of adolescent way, as the transistor radio played music like “Rocket Man,” early Seventies Motown— and that favorite Eagles’ song about standing on an Arizona street comer as a girl in a flatbed Ford drives by. How nice that would be, I thought!
Other times, as I lay in our backyard while trying to get a tan on the back of my legs, I read a good deal. By then the sandbox was gone and the yard and its environs had “shrunk” for good. I liked history books from the library, especially pioneer histories. A favorite junior high teacher, Jim Coleman, had also given me some Marshall MacLuen and Buckminster Fuller to read which, along with Thomas Aquinas, had instilled in me an interest in philosophy which grew once I attended college. For now, I just read it in the grass, feeling vaguely important in the effort, and vaguely anxious about what I’d “do with myself” after high school. I liked poetry too; it expressed things I was thinking about at the time. I liked Robert Frost. The library had a turn-of-the-century anthology called Chief American Poets, and I found other collections. At an age when rock and roll lyrics passed for poetry to me, and having been bored during literature classes, I knew little of poetic styles but I liked the blank verse cadences of William Cullen Bryant
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language …
more so than the more sentimental or conventionally “poetic” styles of the other 1800s poets represented therein. Grandma Crawford had died recently, and I was being “tough” about it. I suppose the poetic expression of Nature as care giver—Bryant’s image of going to death “sustained and soothed By an unfaltering trust” — conjoined with my immature efforts to comprehend her death. The celebration of the American wilderness corresponded mythically to the pioneer histories I was also reading—and the vastness I had once perceived in our neighborhood lands. I also liked the fact that Bryant had written “Thanatopsis” when he was sixteen or seventeen; could I learn to express myself like that at the very same age?
(Already I was beset by that very American impulse to pen The Great Work.)
One passage in Whitman reminded me of Grandma’s farm.
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green.
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle— and from this bush in the dooryard,
With the delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.
Whitman was my favorite.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
I dug my toes into the hot grass of our back yard and said, too,
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Here was an exuberance and an affirmation of life—I was too confused about sexuality in general to comprehend Whitman’s—which I loved more than my anxieties and love-hate strivings for popularity.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All distances of space however wide,
All distances of time,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different..
I liked Masters’ Spoon River Anthology for the same reason.
The world keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you….
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river ?…
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.
Masters’ graveyard reminded me of our family’s old cemetery where many of my ancestors, including Grandma, were buried: a place of surrounding forty-acre farms and memories. I liked the honesty with which the Spoon River people spoke, even the obviously overly dramatic.
As I lay in the grass getting a sunburn, I felt much the same way as I did at church: here were wonderful mysteries beyond what I perceived to be the quiet world of our town. I loved the possibility that you could passionately devote yourself to such mysteries—and to lead others in that way. Such feelings helped to push me toward a career, a few years later, beyond our little community.
Appropriately enough, on the way to that career I spent many hours reading books of divinity in the grass beneath a great New England tree, “flying” in the gladness of knowing my life’s purpose.
In his book of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West, Wallace Stegner observed that, in the West, “you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.” I understood that when we lived in Arizona, and felt a bit of relief when we moved to the Ohio River region, parochial though such feelings may be. Yet for many of us, I believe, the places where we read and work, especially the first places, are nearly indistinguishable from the things we read and the lives we lead—and we never really leave such places.
During my more recent backyard days, I’ve been reading about “aboveground archaeology.” That’s the term historians of modern culture give to twentieth-century roadside artifacts and vernacular commercial and private architecture. One could do an archaeology of the soul as one assesses those favorite haunts of childhood, those particular corners or buildings or places which strangely move one’s heart and mind. As a first time parent I’ve looked at our yard through a child’s eyes as I mow or rake. What hiding places, nooks, and corners, what waters, which paths, which landscape remnants will someday move my daughter to flights of wonder? What “first affections” and “shadowy recollections” will she have which, I pray, will deepen her soul by God’s grace? What books will she read while lying in the grass? Will she patiently listen to my tedious stories about old fishing doles and club houses and pretend-rocket ships, and then have memories older than her?
For now, the lawn work beckons. There’s a nice breeze outside, I’m feeling peaceful, and those monkeys are getting pretty nostalgic.
(A portion of this essay was published in Springhouse magazine and then in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places, self-published in 1995, 2000. Thanks to Michelle for transcribing!)