Summer is here in Pittsburgh, and thankfully, the expected humidity has not yet fallen on our slice of the western Pennsylvania hills. The beautiful weather has me fighting the urge to go outside and work in the yard, so I’ll do the next best thing to gardening—I’ll write about it.
Rooting around in some of my old papers recently, I found a piece I wrote thirteen years back about landscaping my folks’ house, and here it is:
I lost my marbles so long ago I can’t remember when. Lately I’ve been finding them, in my folks’ yard.
The last few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of yard work around my parents’ house. I’ve replanted azaleas and pines; I’ve planted tulip, daffodil and gladiolus bulbs, as well as snapdragons, impatiens, pansies and begonias. I’ve dug up sod, built up flowerbeds, composted and mulched, and I’m not nearly done.
Could be that the marbles are slowing me down. It seems like every time I get on a roll working in the yard, those dirty marbles open their lonely eyes to me, looking pitiful, stuck in a clod of soil or a chunk of clay, or mud-plastered on an old rock. I just can’t help but drop what I’m doing and pry the little buggers loose, to check them out—faded turquoise balls, glistening emerald green ones, half-chewed calico marbles, cloudy yellow and green big mommas, and dark-glass kaleidoscopic blues…
Rediscovering some of the marbles that I played with as a kid, I find myself recovering my forgotten past. From what I can remember, the value of marbles to me when I was a kid was almost nil. I liked the way they looked, and it was good to have a lot of them, but no big deal. I remember finding the game of marbles to be pretty boring.
The marbles that I have been unearthing, though, have come to me accidentally, like unexpected artifacts found in an archaeological dig. I unintentionally discovered them, only to realize later that they had significant value to me.
The marbles reminded me of a part of my childhood I’d forgotten. For most of my childhood and until a few years back, a somewhat lonely old man named Pete lived in the house next to my parents. When my siblings and I were young, we hung around old Pete (and sometimes his equally kindly wife Char), because he was a kind old guy, and also because he gave us treats, and because he never seemed to get angry. We called him Uncle Pete, and his wife was Aunt Char. They had no kids.
Pete had beautiful gardens in his front and back yards. Everything was neatly edged with Belgium blocks and ivy. In spring, the yard was an ebullient mass-bloom of crocus, mums, daffodils and tulips. In summertime, the floribunda and tea roses in Pete’s front yard seemed to simultaneously beckon and warn. We kids picked the roses on the sly.
Pete was sick for the last three years of his life, and his yard quickly went wild. He tried to clean up the yard from time to time, but he was fighting more than one losing battle.
For the past few years, an absentee landlord has owned Pete’s house, and the place has gone to seed. A catalpa tree is growing smack against the side of the house, pushing off the fascia. Ivy covered nearly everything like a sneaky blanket, hiding the stone paths and pushing over block borders. Tulips push defiantly through the tangle, proudly waving their pinks and soft whites, yellows and blaring reds. The daffodils seem to nod approvingly as the rose bushes swell and bud.
The block wall that held up the front garden has collapsed several times, and the well-meaning old guy who rents the second floor of Pete’s old house keeps re-setting the blocks in a soldier’s course, instead of laying the blocks across the gaps and stepping back the wall a bit.
Pete was one of the first people to interest me in growing things. He was always weeding, planting, and pruning, and as I hung around him, he would carefully explain to me how to do whatever task he was working on. I always loved to get dirty, so I’d help him. The faint violet scent of the till as we worked it, and the reverence with which we planted, combined with the fragrance of the flowers and the almost exotic greenery of Pete’s yard, like an indoor garden with the sky for a ceiling, impressed with a notion of how to keep a yard.
I like to think of Pete and his love for beauty, his cultivation of nature, and his ability to create his garden with his own hands. When I was young, I was vaguely conscious of viewing Pete’s gardens as the natural embodiment of a sense of beauty and order that I’ve always craved, and which I think we all seek, in one way or another.
Lately, I feel as if Pete’s spirit has been paying a visit to the old homestead. As I work in the yard I remember things that he said, and the care he always seemed to take with the earth, and how he always worked to make his gardens more beautiful, when they could’ve won prizes as they were.
I guess it was Pete’s spirit that made me take those Belgium blocks from the front wall of his old place. When I was in the yard a while back, I swear I heard Uncle Pete whisper to me: “Go ahead, Johnny, take some of those blocks. They won’t even miss them in that mess.” So one night I grabbed a few and took them over to my folks’ yard to use in some borders.
I was talking about marbles. One afternoon, as I stopped digging for a moment to pick up a couple of denim-blue orbs (which looked suspiciously like my eyes), I felt a wave of joy, and I congratulated myself at having come that far—having lived to unearth those marbles and memories.
As I knelt and planted, the neighborhood came alive to me. I heard the sparrows and the jays and the robins and starlings, and out of the corner of my eye I caught a cardinal flashing his color from tree to tree.
The people in my folks’ neighborhood—really my neighborhood for most of my life—came around gradually and complimented me on my work. At first they approached my cautiously, as you would approach a stranger at night on a dark street. Then they would talk to me, and I’d realize that this old lady remembered me from when I was a kid, and that little dude’s brother knows my younger brother, so the little guy knows me, calling me by my surname—pretty ballsy for a 10-year-old. I’ve begun to reacquaint myself with the people in the neighborhood, and I feel a new sense of community there. I lost my marbles, but one by one, I’m finding them.
This story originally was published in Radio Transcript Newspaper.