Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Way is Shut

I worry about my back yard.

We live on a narrow third of an acre, a city plot that has no wild corners, no overgrown bushes, no corner of the garden or flower bed hidden from prying eyes where our children could build roads for the cars, villages for the teddy bears, or otherwise poke around and discover the possibilities of dirt, water, old bricks and a few bits of cardboard, Styrofoam and other refuse swiped from neighboring Dumpsters or Dad’s tool shed.

I grew up with such a back yard.

It wasn’t much bigger than the one my kids have now. A half-acre where dad built a rambling, single-story brick house that housed eight children and numberless concourses of small dogs and cats, one of which gave birth on my older brother Albert’s chest while he was asleep. We had our own private power pole – it fed power to our house, and to the neighbors, through wires that snicked and snapped when it was cold outside. In the northeast corner, smelling of ethyl mercaptan, a valve lineup for Intermountain Gas, snug in the corner of our lot and bordering on the gravel backlot for Idaho Welding to the north and corrugated steel storage sheds to the east. South of the lineup with its hisses and stinks, a bramble of lilac, the chicken coop, a tiny shed Dad built of cinder blocks and lava rock, then the neighbors chickens.

It was a tiny, smelly and rather industrial place to grow up.

It was our world and we loved it.

Wedged between the lilacs and the steel storage sheds, a strip of weedy ground about six feet wide. We built villages there out of brick and travertine pilfered from Dad’s piles for the teddy bears – the Blueys – named after the blue teddy bear our maternal grandmother knitted for Randy, the youngest. We three youngest had similar bears, all of which lost eyes and noses as time wore on. Mine was Reddy, named for his red yarn. Maaike’s was Pinky. We had another Bluey and a Goldy (we tried calling him Yellowy; that didn’t work).

I should not say was. Nor had. We still have them. Reddy and the newer Bluey reside on a shelf in our bedroom, amongst some of my wife’s cherished childhood stuffed animals. Randy still has Bluey – now a bit tattered, his blue faded to grey – and Goldy. Maaike still has Pinky.

Their last name is Johnson. I don’t know why. Probably didn’t know then, though at the time we got the first bears, our bishop was named Johnson. Funny the things you don’t record as a child, not thinking at all that, twenty or thirty years hence, you might want to remember the reasons behind the things you did.

Their houses had windows. One summer, we built them with running water. And fireplaces. Working fireplaces. We played with fire. Nobody got burned. Nothing burned down. They made pies out of the little berries that grew on the bushes in the front yard. They planted flowers, soon had marigolds nearly as tall as their houses. They wore grass skirts that got eaten by worms. They dug in the dirt, made paths though weeds that were waist-high to us, lining the paths with gravel swiped from the driveway. They built streams, bridges over the streams, a lake where the stream water went to foam into Indian soap.

They kept us busy all summer. Some days, from dawn to dusk, when we left their homes reluctantly, watching the light from the lit birthday candles we left in their windows as we walked back into the house.

As we grew older, the games became more sophisticated. They became pilots in airplanes and space ships we built, still out of junk pilfered from Idaho Welding’s Dumpsters. Occasionally, we’d move their villages to other wild spots on the property, notably n the north side of the house where, between house and another strand of lilac, another narrow strip of land lay open to our machinations. This was their garden spot, where grass grew, and moss, and where the rain dripped off the house onto their roofs as they lay inside, snug and dry, under blankets made of washcloths we took from the bathroom.

And more sophisticated. We went through a Star Trek phase, making elaborate maroon uniforms for them out of felt and discarded dress socks.

Writing down these memories feels shallow. I look through my photo albums and find one picture of a village we built, and only a few others of us at play with these cherished teddy bears. Randy and Maaike may have more. But as I look at them and write these memories, I feel as if the door back to them is shut. There’s no magic wardrobe that can take me back to that time. I’m not even sure giving the teddy bears to my own kids would open that door. They have no wild place to build a village; it would be in the way of the rototiller, the lawn mower. I have cheated my children, buying this property. There are no madelines and tea for me.

There is no back yard here.

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