I wrote this in the summer, and then I held it close. I’m not sure why. Possibly because the thought of watching my first-born gear up to apply for colleges was a feeling of chapter-closing that I was unprepared to share. But I reread it today, and I realize that it is also a kind of chapter-opening. As we are all dealing with so much loss, we are also moving forward, sometimes imperceptibly. It’s important to sit with the bittersweet for a while, too, I think. So here it is.
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Have you ever really listened to the rain? The slaps of individual drops on leaves, the hiss of the street getting steadily wetter, the swish of little bursts of droplets carried by the wind into the grass, the steady trickle off the roof into that one corner of the foundation where you know, you just know, the water will try its hardest to make its way into the basement. The water makes half a dozen sounds, depending on where the droplets join together into drips or streams.
I am trying to concentrate on some work, but I cannot stop looking out the window and holding my breath just a little. It’s been more than a month since we’ve had a proper steady rain, and I feel a clutching desire for this to continue into a real soaking.
The world is dusty. Thirsty. Small trees are beginning to droop. The lilacs—fifteen feet high—and climbing roses—ten—have yellowing leaves. These are plants that I have never before thought to water, any more than I would water the silver maple that towers over my three-story house. Their root systems are far too deep to need my hose’s help at ground level. The rose covers half the wall of my garage. This year, I have been watering it. And watching its leaves yellow prematurely nonetheless.
Yesterday I noticed that the under-canopy of the lilac at the corner of my porch was still green, but the upper reaches, where the blooms flourish in the full sun of spring, are covered in black patches, as if the leaves are being slowly burned from the inside. Lilacs are susceptible to powdery mildew, and in the six years I’ve lived in this house, not a summer has passed when the green of my hedge didn’t eventually become muted by that film of white. Until now. The heavy damp heat of late-summer rains, the moisture that courts this mildew, has been parched out of existence this year. Those still-bright leaves felt almost as bad an omen as the ones that look burned. A rebuke.
Recently, I dug a new flower bed in a place I’d long wanted one: the whole stretch of my lot, along the sidewalk that borders the front yard. The design plan of the 1910 builders was to excavate full basements up and down our street and simply use the removed material to create raised lots. Consequently, our houses perch on small, flat front yards, four feet above street level. On the odd-numbered side, where I live, the short, steep slope up from the sidewalk faces south. The grass browns there earlier in the season than anywhere else, its face forced into the sunshine, its soil dehydrated by runoff. It is the perfect place to eradicate grass entirely, and install a terraced flowerbed instead.
When we bought this house, on a corner lot, six years ago, I built a low retaining wall to anchor just the small corner flowerbed—a concession to my then-eleven-year-old who did not want me to do the same across the whole front because then it would be impossible to run down that slope while playing kick-the-can. “I’ll have to jump over the flowers,” he lamented. And because I had just forced him to move 800 miles away from the only home he’d ever known, the friends he’d loved since before he could remember, I acceded. He was not asking for much—a yard in which he could move freely, unimpeded by a pointless flowerbed that would effectively create a funnel down the front walk, where it would be all too easy to get trapped in nightly games of tag.
It was a good trade: the deferred flower bed for the unpredictable zinging of neighborhood children through the twilight across the lawns. The hooting laughter, the dull clatter of the can, the feet pounding across our covered front porch—which made the best home-base for the can because our porch, unlike any other on the street, wraps partway around the house and has two entry points. Its second set of stairs, tucked behind an enormous hemlock on the side of the house, makes guarding the can a game of real strategy.
This summer, it feels quite suddenly, this boy of mine is seventeen. I cannot remember for how many summers the games of kick-the-can lasted. I know there was an epic capture-the-flag night during the party we had, a month after we moved in, to thank everyone who’d been so kind to us. Sixty people, evenly divided between adults and children, filled our porch and yard, although the children quickly scattered into the night, hiding in yards up and down the block, their whispers and running feet and laughter streaking past their parents as we sipped cold things.
As I pulled sod a few weeks ago, I remembered the thud of feet across the yard. My daughter helped, both of us becoming dirtier than I would have thought possible. She laughed at my dust-covered arms and smudged face and reminded me of my promise to wait to turn this front stretch into a flowerbed until no one wanted to run across the yard in nightly games any more. She did not have to remind me, because how could I forget? Again, that clutch in my insides, realizing how old they are now.
We have not planted anything in this bed. It sits waiting, mulched and amended, leveled and retained, studded with a few decorative pieces of fieldstone that will help hold back the upper part of the hillside. It would be folly to put new plants into a south-facing, full-sun bed in July, when it hasn’t rained for a month, and the city is requesting watering restrictions.
Today’s rain has slowly tapered off. A few drips continue from the front eaves, in the spots where rooflines converge to create a tiny stream. The view across the street still has that slight haze that follows summer rain, as if the tipping point where the air can hold no more moisture has been sated, and the water is held instead of falling. The cool damp is palpable, a relief coming through the open windows.
I will not plant anything in that front bed for another month, probably. Not until this unseasonably hot weather cools. Not until there is the promise of more rain. And when I do, when it is full next summer of native plants and flowers that I hope will draw the bees and butterflies, I suspect that there will be moments again of that small clutch. The trade—a boy too old to care about careening across the yard, a girl old enough to help with the heavy labor of gardening hardscape, in exchange for a flowerbed—an inevitable one, but slightly bittersweet.