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Overblown saplings–a miniature Terabithia.

When I was a kid, people took care of their yards, made them look nice, but not to obsession. No one was shooting for the front lawn of Versailles. What was the point? People had better things to do, and besides, they had four kids and eleven nieces and nephews and consequently were going to host barbecues and egg hunts. You mowed your lawn, maybe you planted a few flowers or a vegetable garden, but that was it.

In our yards we’d tear around under the sprinkler a lot. We played Hide and Seek behind the azalea and rhododendron hedges and climbed the Japanese maples*. We played Red Light Green Light, Midnight, and Mother May I. In the fall we once mapped out leaves in a grid on the grass to make pretend rooms, and played house. At my aunt and uncle’s place we’d amble out to the ground cover at the southern end of the yard where our cousins said little men lived, and they told us stories about them. It’s one of my earliest memories.

Ubi sunt, a motif in medieval literature, comes to mind.** The Latin translates to ‘where are?’ As in, ‘Where are the people we used to hang with, where are the places we used to love to visit, where did the old times go? Why does everything have to change? What gives?’ This brand of nostalgia is just as applicable in the poems of our daily lives as it was in Beowulf. Some days I feel the old chain mail rattling on me a lot.

It’s true that much is different today; and back to yards, when it comes to them, I can’t imagine that those differences are good for anybody. I mentioned in a recent post that the current owners of my cousins’ house ripped out almost everything—the sour cherry tree, the loosely growing hedges, the tree house, even pulled the patio right off the back of the house—and covered the holes with Astro-Turf green sod. It’s as soulless as the eyes of a Rodeo Drive mannequin.

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Woodland strawberry leaves, early winter.

I know a couple whose yard is a self-imposed leaf-free zone. I mean all year. I mean in a town with enormous, century-old trees. The kind with leaves on them. To put it plainly, keeping the yard free of leaves is a combo platter of futility and insanity. One time the wife spotted six insurgent leaves in the front flower bed and asked her husband to get rid of them before company came that day ‘because they didn’t look good.’ I swear to you I’m not making this up.

Forsythia hedges, meant to grow with extravagant wide shaggy yellow arms every spring, are now often shaved into somewhat unnerving spheres. At the school bus stop across the street from the house where I grew up, another massive hedge, covered in spring with sweetly perfumed white blossoms, has been chopped down to a waist-high nub.

Why does it seem everything these days has to be senselessly tidied? Prettified? I’ve talked about this a lot—with food and otherwise. It seems to be pervasive everywhere, this notion of showboat over substance. Creeps me out, quite frankly.

Well, I’m not poopy by nature. Bash on, regardless! as the English say. So. Below, my personal recommendations.

Mind you, now, I am not suggesting you stifle your creativity. If your yard is your proverbial canvas, have at it. But…I am gently but firmly asking that you don’t create yourself into a box—a predictable, restrictive, limiting box. Creativity is supposed to make the world bigger, not smaller. Hint: If you routinely call out things to the kids like, ‘Don’t touch the hydrangeas,’ ‘Stay away from the garden arches,’ ‘No Aquasocks near the day lilies–you’ll elevate the pH in the soil,’ you’re in a box. Take a note from my boy Jim Morrison and break on through.

How To Keep A Yard

1. Let it be a little rough here and there. Let the hedges get a little overgrown. They’re hiding places. They’re necessary.

2. Let the paint on your deck steps be imperfect. Rough spots are the scrapbook pages of stories told there, after-school cuddles, lunchbox parking spaces, jumping games.

3. Teach the kids how to apply bug spray, show them what poison oak and ivy and sumac looks like, and then leave them alone.

4. Value the romance in the edges of a yard, where the cultivated meets the wild. They are the places where the wondrous and the scary and the huge and the tiny and the improbable can dance. I don’t believe there is anything in the universe—even the universe—bigger than a kid’s imagination. Spending time in the shadowy crevices, in those places where human order bumps up against natural disorder—that’s where imagination can spin, that’s food for the soul. The best kind.

5. Let kids have a little patch of earth that’s all theirs. They get to choose what’s on it. A pizza garden with basil, oregano and any vegetable they deign worthy of eating, or just a dusty tableau to imagine onto, with or without props. And when it rains it’s mud. Tell me what’s better than that. Want to create? Want them to create? Start with mud.

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Happily, ubi sunt holds off from time to time. It’s a relief. I visited the nubbed-down hedge at the bus stop today. There are flower buds on it. Only about 16, but I’ll take it.

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And the ground cover at my cousins’ house remains. When I walk past I think about what my cousins said, about the little men who lived in it. Who knows? Maybe they did. Or still do.

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*Oops. Just outed us after 35 years 🙂 Sorry, Mom.

**I love how a literary motif I learned in 1989 will never be lost to me, but I couldn’t tell you the license plate number of the car I’ve driven for 11 years.

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Halloween was the one night a year when it felt as if kids ruled the world. And we did.

Below, a step-by-step description of what, to me, makes a perfect Halloween—and which is what I lived every year in the ’70s and into the ’80s.

Step 1: Be lucky enough to be raised in a small town—for example, Interlaken, NJ—that has 1000 residents, pretty much all of whom are extended family members, or are neighbors of extended family members, or go to school with you. Either way, they’re moms who work with your mom on the PTA and have your back. Your town will have hundred-year-old trees that grow together in the middle of the street just like Ray Bradbury described in the town of his youth, and which, despite a handful of streetlights, make the town inky black at night and heap it with fragrant leaves, rich and musky, to shuffle through.

It was Mayberry—and it still is, 30 years later.

Step 2: Choose your costume at the 5 & 10 one town over. It will be acrylic, make no mistake.

Three years old, across the street at the Boyds’ house.

Or, if you are seven and your two front baby teeth have recently come out and you look three-quarters of the way to a jack o’lantern as it is, your mom might be inspired to put you in the pumpkin costume she sewed for your little sister a few years back, stuff it with bunched-up newspaper, and draw triangles around your eyes and nose and an exaggerated smile around your mouth with black eyeliner. Hypothetically speaking.

Step 3: After school, your mom sends you and your brother and sister outside to play because you’re too hopped up to be inside. You meet your friends to go trick-or-treating after dinner. Unless you’re five, you don’t go out before dark. We lived in a safe town and helicopter parents then were few. My mom had just one rule: Don’t cross Westra. (That was the one moderately busy street in our town.) The rest of the town was fair game. Once you were old enough to go trick-or-treating alone with your friends, you did—and your parents did not fret, fuss, insist on coming along in their own costumes, tell you not to eat the candy you got, make you wait to eat any until you got home so they could check it for tampering, or text you incessantly—because, saints be praised, it hadn’t been invented yet.

Pendant of candy corn encased in Lucite, circa 1973. Yes, I do still wear it.

Step 4: You stop at every house with a porch light on. You make a point to stop at the Maguras’, because Mrs. Magura makes homemade popcorn balls, and Mrs. Panes’s house, because her family owns Criterion Candies on the Asbury boardwalk, and she always gives out gorgeous candy apples. And you stop at your cousins’ because your aunt gives out the yummiest candy and the most generous handfuls. When you pass other friends on the sidewalk, you stop and brag about how much more candy you have than they have, and then you tell each other which houses have the good stuff and which have the raisins. When you’re in the mood for candy, you eat it. When you’re full, you still eat it. Because you and your friends don’t eat like this on a regular basis. It’s one night a year. It’s okay.

Card from Auntie Phyllis, circa 1977. Each of us kids got our own Halloween card.

Step 5: Once your candy bag starts getting too heavy and a thick layer of leaves has attached itself to the hem of your acrylic dress, you say goodbye to your friends. You don’t walk home, but to your other aunts’ house, where your parents and your aunts and uncles are gathered around the dining room table. After a certain point that night, they stop handing out candy to neighborhood kids, turn off their porch lights and head over to relax together with coffee and apple cider and cinnamon-sugar apple cider doughnuts. It is always the same cider and doughnuts from the same place, Delicious Orchards, because nothing—to this very day—beats them for quality. We grew up on this cider, which is unpasteurized, murky and intensely flavored (and may be why none of us has allergies) and the doughnuts are crackly and delicately crumbed.

Cider doughnuts from Delicious Orchards, on one of my beloved aunt’s dessert dishes. Worth clicking to see it bigger. Seriously.

Step 6: Go home and dump all of your candy on the living room rug, making stacks for each variety and counting how many you have of each. This was a time when there were not many ‘fun sizes’ except maybe for Milk Duds, which came in tiny boxes and you got three to a box, and Hershey Miniatures. Most other candy came in full size—big Krackels, big Charleston Chews, big Chunky bars.

Give your sister all of the Snickers and Baby Ruths because you hate peanuts and she likes them, and she will give you all of her Reese’s peanut butter cups (because you do like peanut butter and she hates that). Your dad roots around for the Mounds bars and Hershey Special Darks, which is fine because you also hate coconut and dark chocolate. (What was I thinking?) Milky Ways, Skor Bars, Rolos, Whatchamacallits and $100,000 bars (their real name) get place of privilege. Mary Janes—these you and your sister and brother throw at each other just because they’re weird, always smushed, and aren’t chocolate. If it’s not going to be chocolate, at least have the decency to be Chuckles, those luscious half-dollar sized gumdrops, or Twizzlers.

Small ceramic witch I received when I was very young. My sister has a blonde one, with a pumpkin instead of a cat.

Step 7: Eat some more. Your mom does not rush you off to bed because you go to Catholic school and tomorrow, November 1, is All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ is the result of Christianity trying to co-op the pagan holiday and is kind of a weasel move, but I’m not about to quibble with a day off, especially the day after Halloween. You put all of your candy back into your candy bag. And finally you head to bed.

I bought some Mary Janes this year just to taste them, since I never had before. They’re peanut butter-molasses chews, and I was underwhelmed. I don’t know why I was expecting a miracle. Did that stop me from sticking the rest into two envelopes and mailing them to my brother and sister? It did not.

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