The backyard is both a place and a state of being. The front yard is partly for the neighbors. In the front yard, the grass must be cut and the crabgrass kept to a minimum. Even if the homeowners think dandelions are pretty, the neighbors will expect the flowers to be mowed before they turn to seed. Children may play in the front yard from time to time, and company is greeted there, but the real living takes place in the backyard.
In our first little white house, where we lived until I was six, I loved our backyard. Mother planted wide beds of flowers along both sides, and my parents grew vegetables—I liked the green peppers best. My wading pool sat partway down the yard. One day I took my life-sized doll, Susie, swimming with me; doing so made her seem like a real girl, and I wanted Susie to share my fun.
When I was four, I came home from a playmate’s late one afternoon to find my father brushing forest-green paint on a wooden jungle gym he had just finished building. A long ladder with smooth round rungs was suspended between shorter vertical ladders. I couldn’t believe this magnificent structure was meant for me. On it, I could hang upside down and then flip over to land on my feet. I could travel hand over hand down the long horizontal ladder. I could swing over to the bars on the swing set. I was fearless on the jungle gym, and my parents trusted me to stay alive.
At the far end of our backyard, where the area known as “the mud” began, other neighborhood children and I wandered and explored, stopping to look up when the occasional airplane passed overhead. One afternoon, accompanied by Inky the spaniel, we children set off on a turtle hunt. “Inky is going to find us a turtle!” I called to my mother. Against the odds, Inky came through for us. After she helped us take off our muddy shoes, Mother found a box for the turtle and lettuce for his lunch.
The backyard of our second little white house did not include a jungle gym, which I was sad to leave behind, but half of our new backyard was wooded. Wild plants, dry leaves, and boulders surrounded hundred-foot-tall trees. When I was in the woods, it screened out all memory of bullying classmates and teachers who piled on the homework.
The branches of an ironwood tree bent down to meet the top of a tall granite rock, and in the space between, my friends and I played house. A flat rock by the largest oak created a porch, as we called it, for sitting a moment and deciding Native Americans had worn the nearby path. Around us grew blueberry bushes, spring beauties, dog-toothed violets, and jacks-in-the-pulpit. Tadpoles lived in the small pools of water left from the spring rains. On the June morning when summer vacation began, the woods greeted me with still-fresh, light-green leaves. Sunlight illuminated the last of the mist from the cool overnight air.
In front of the woods, on the backyard lawn, my friends and I played croquet and softball, sat on another of the yard’s boulders to converse with our dolls, held handstand and cartwheel contests, and swung on the swings. Unlike some parents, mine didn’t mind that our feet wore away the grass. I liked to swing high and then jump to the ground. The neighborhood girls shared some traits with my classmates—as in, “We’re in a club, and you have to pay five cents to join.”—but in our backyard, I never felt second-rate or thought about needing to be different than I was.
Every summer, we visited our relatives in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The backyard I most loved there was behind Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s big white house on College Street. We ate dinner outdoors on long tables: a big family eating late in the evening after Aunt Ruth’s lengthy preparations—green beans cooked for hours with country ham, corn on the cob, huge pieces of lemon-meringue pie. Two-year-old Kelly toddled toward the side of the property, to be brought back and then start off again. Mark, a year older, called me “Cussin Winnie” and wanted me to play with him. No one rushed away. Nannie and Aunt Winnie had only to walk next door to be home.
One evening, my cousin Shirley and Shirley’s husband, Duffy, danced for us all: Mother and Daddy and me, Nannie and Aunt Winnie, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry, Cousin Carol, and Mark and Kelly—their sister, Ruthie, was not yet born. The Landrums were there, too; Aunt Winnie managed the Landrum Insurance office. The layers of Shirley’s party skirt swirled as she and Duffy waltzed to the music from the record player. Afterwards, Aunt Winnie and Mr. Landrum performed a comic routine. She stood in back and extended her arms in front of him; he kept his arms hidden. As Mr. Landrum told a story, Aunt Winnie spread her arms wide to emphasize the dramatic points and wiped his eyes at the sad parts. Her dainty arms made an incongruous contrast to her boss’ tall frame. Daddy told his story about the hoarse ice-cream waitress. “Do you have laryngitis?” asks the customer. “No,” the waitress replies, “just chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.”
The world in which summer evenings brought time to climb on the jungle gym, backyard games of Mother May I? and Harrodsburg family suppers has long since spun away. Present life includes more front yards than backyards. But in my mind, I see my dear ones gathered on the tranquil, broad, green lawn of Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s backyard, from which no one will be forced to leave, torn away from the pleasure and affection. Shirley dances; Nannie gives her saucy commentary; Mother tells a funny story; and Daddy soaks up the textures of the layered trees against a brilliant sky.