365ink #396 November 24–December 8, 2021 - Page 34


Right in Your Own Backyard

By Pam Kress-Dunn
I love backyards . When I drive down a residential street , I can ’ t help trying to peek at the landscapes hidden from view . What ’ s in your backyard ? I want to know ! Visiting my best friend at her first post-wedding home , she pointed out how backyards differed from front yards in her neighborhood . “ If we see the neighbors when we ’ re standing in our front yards , we say ‘ Hi ,’ or walk over to have a conversation . But if we ’ re all in our backyards , we don ’ t .” There was an unwritten rule , she explained , that everyone pretended they couldn ’ t see each other back there , even if there was no fence or wall . I laughed , but it made sense . It seemed very civilized .
The big backyard where I grew up was edged with split rail fences constructed by my dad . The kids on the block drifted easily from one yard to another , across
the alley and back . We played red rover and wiffle ball there , slung quilts over clotheslines for tents , lay out in the sun while the sprinkler percolated . Parents waved to the other parents . There was no pretending the neighbors were invisible . At my old house on Wood Street , the backyards , even ours , teemed with children . There was no alley , so they traveled through our backyard to join their friends . No one bothered to teach them to use the front sidewalk to get from house to house . We were the empty nesters , and watching these kids traipse over our patio and through our lawn chairs brought out the Gladys Kravitz in me . For those of you born after the millennium , she was the nosy , crabby next-door neighbor in Bewitched , the one who complained about the kids and almost figured out that Samantha was a witch . Or maybe I was channeling Seinfeld ’ s Kramer , sitting by his new screen door yelling , “ You damned kids get outta my yard !” even though he was sitting in the hall of an apartment .
Our new house came with a slice of the arboretum , edged with thickly planted shrubs and trees on either side and woods , actual woods , to the rear . It has paths and steps and rock walls and is absolutely private . We do let children in there , as long as they are descended from one of our
children . We just had the little shed near the house reroofed , painted , electrified , and furnished with an indoor-outdoor Persian rug and leaf-patterned curtains just so they can play in it . They live far away , but it doesn ’ t matter . I put a simple desk and chair in there so that , when the weather is warmer , I can sit there and write . Don ’ t call it a “ She Shed .” That icky-cutesy term makes me wince . It ’ s a Serious Shed !
When friends from Australia visited our house on Wood Street , they were appalled when they went out back to keep Bob company as he grilled our dinner . “ It ’ s so wide open !” they gasped . In their country — and the UK — backyards are even more private than ours , lined with high walls of brick or stone . The walls of our yard are green and dense , though they need more upkeep ( boy , do they ) than stone . No one can see our yard , not from the street . Our house looks like any other mundane split-level in suburbia . The backyard is our Secret Garden .
I ’ m just so curious about the other yards I pass . In my neck of the woods , the yards behind some houses plunge like gorges , while others are edged in limestone cliffs . How do the children play there ? Do their parents put up fences to keep them from the gorge , from the woods ? Do teenagers dare each other to climb the limestone walls ? I ’ ve heard of secret caves in backyards not far from Finley Hospital , and I wonder how many kids have gone spelunking there , unbeknownst to their parents . The house I bought when I came to Dubuque with my young daughter and son turned out to be perilously close to underground caverns where beer had been stored for the tavern on the corner where Magoo ’ s Pizza now stands ( and Nanny Goats before
that ). I ’ m relieved my son had no idea how easy it would have been to explore those vaults . The next-door neighbor told me how he and his friends knew just which manhole cover in the alley to lift . OMG .
John Cheever wrote a famous story titled The Swimmer . Published in 1964 , it ’ s the story of Ned Merrill , who decides , in the midst of a pool party where everyone is a little bit bored and a little bit tipsy , to “ swim across the county ” through his upper-class neighbors ’ backyard pools , drinking from his wine bottle along the way . Clad in just his swim trunks , he strides through the grass and dives into one pool after another , greeting his friends , sharing the day ’ s gossip , and moving happily on . It seems like a lovely idea , a magical thing to do on a hot , bright summer day when , after all , he knows everyone he encounters . Gradually , though , the day darkens and he feels less welcome . He hears people muttering about how he lost his job , he owes them money , his children are not doing well . When at last he comes to his house , he finds it dark and no longer his .
That ’ s a dark story . I don ’ t want to swim in your pool . Dubuque ’ s backyards are bright and promising . I ’ m just curious about your little corner of nature . I hope it ’ s more about play than mowing — a place to play catch with the kids , and to catch your own breath . •
34 365INK MAGAZINE November 24 – December 8 , 2021 Issue # 396 DUBUQUE365 . COM