Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My Way Or The Highway

Old Highway 94 slumbers beneath the grass of my new back yard.  Before lunch today I went out with my heavy iron prying bar and shovel and started trying to remove a piece of the highway that was visible at the soil surface.  This section of the lawn is nice and flat.  It's an ideal planting space for a lot of my daylilies.

You may ask what Old Highway 94 is doing under my grass.  The road is a mile away from here, after all.  The story I heard from the former owner of this property is this:  he wanted to make the slope of the lawn gentler, and he was trying to economize, so he approached the crew working on the highway to ask if they wanted a place to dump some fill.  He forgot to say, "clean fill," and so what he got was a load of rubble with some dirt bulldozed over the top to cover up the hideous mess.

As I began this task, my memory drifted back to our new tract house in a new section of Levittown, just northeast of Philadelphia, where we moved on my December birthday in 1954.  Levitt had thought through the details of instant landscaping for every homeowner, so the first spring we were there a crew came by and planted fast-growing trees and shrubs and then seeded a lawn.

This is a favorite family photo from the spring of 1956.  There's no human being in it, just the jazzy red and black Mercury station wagon with seat belts.  The color was chosen to please me.  This was the car I learned to drive in four years later.

To the left of the car, outside the picture frame, is the brick patio that was to have been a weekend project on Memorial Day in 1957.  My father had selected a style of kiln-fired brick with variable color, and we had a pile of bricks along the side of the garage and a pile of sand.  Dad planned to use no wet cement, but to lay the bricks dry and then brush a dry cement mixture into the cracks and wet down the patio to affix the bricks in place.

However, there was a hitch.  When we began to remove the flagstone walkway and level out the ground for the bricks, we hit a chunk of concrete.  Much of the first and second day of this one-weekend job were spent in digging around the chunk to be able to lift it out.

We dug and we dug.  Finally we had exposed something the size of a pony.  It was left-over concrete from pouring foundations for the houses in the vicinity.  They'd used a backhoe to open up a hole the size of a grave and just dumped the concrete into the hole and covered it up.  There was no way we were going to remove that lump.  We had to build the patio on top of it and hope for the best.

This took all summer, as I recall, but we did get it built.  Here's a picture of me on the patio, indexing my record collection one summer day in 1970 as I recall.

There was never any furniture on it, nor any potted plants.  It was just a way to make the place different from every other place in the neighborhood.  All the neighbors did one thing or another to redesign their houses and original landscaping.  Within sight of our house, just across the street and down an embankment, was one of the very few older houses belonging to people who would not sell out to the developers.  There were three such old places within a mile of our house, and they had for me the only attraction of "history" in that immense landscape of tract housing.

We were living in a new place that had once been some other, "historical" kind of place with some other identity.  We were in the cradle or uterus or seedbed of the American Revolution.  Washington's Crossing State Park was about a half-hour north of us.  My father had received a commission to design a small auditorium there to house Emanuel Leutze's painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware."  The local school district had an Indian name, "Neshaminy," though nothing about Indians was taught us.

And now I am back in such a place.  I have come full circle since my tenth birthday journey to Levittown.  I am in a thirty-year-old ranch-style house with more access to the garden space I've wanted than I ever had before, and I'm facing an unknown extent of asphalt obstacles just below the surface.  Oh, Dad, are you smiling?  Are you having a good guffaw about what I'm remembering about our patio project?  Are you straining with me on the prying bar to help me heft the hundreds of pounds of chunks out onto the grass?

Would you have left the Bradford Pears alone, as I have, until they shatter in a wind storm?  I'm already planning their successors.

Would you have cut down the ill-trimmed cherry tree and started over, as I have decided not to do?

Would you have reminded me of all your beautiful raised beds for your iris collection in Levittown twenty years ago, or would you have been more direct and just said, "you should not fight the rubble under the grass.  Just bring in truckloads of soil and raise the level where you want to plant your daylilies."

Would you have guessed, as I didn't, that this blog was going to be about you?  There you are with Mom, at some architects' convention in a tropical city, about forty years ago and ten years before your retirement.  You were in the decade of your best work as a school designer, at the top of your game, head of the firm, both children out of school and married.

Your passion for growing irises would emerge by surprise during your retirement years.  Your hobby of making furniture from rosewood xylophone keys would continue until your move to Florida in 1996, when you would develop an interest in watercolor and paint some of the Vermont landscape photographs I'd had published in Vermont Life magazine.

And then one day in late September of 2000, I would come to your hospital bedside and bless you, and then you would learn that your days were numbered, literally, in mere days.  You would tell Mom what she already knew, and then you would fade away into the fog of your death.

Since that time I have been unable to sing all the way through the Christmas hymn, "Once in Royal David's City."  My throat becomes a knot and my eyes fill with tears on the last stanza, "And our eyes at last shall see him."  The knot binds me to you, Dad.  It's my memorial.


Unknown said...

As ever, a splendid read and a wonderful nostalgic trip to things that really mattered and some that really didn't (the trivial and minutiae of life) in the past.

Ms. Lanny

Anonymous said...

Alas, Michael, for your original landscaping plans! To echo your father's probable advice: raised beds in that part of the property would be wise.

To make a couple of seedling beds last year, I wrestled with too many tree roots to count. After prying and digging and sawing for days, the heavy clay in the seedling beds was ready for soil amendments. This year, the soil needs another good dose of compost.

Happy gardening in your new location! Seajay