Fathom Mag
Article

Crossing the Street

Exchanging stories in the backyard

Published on:
June 4, 2018
Read time:
3 min.
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She wears her eighty-plus years well. With Toronto finally thawing after the long winter, my neighbor Gail spends her days gardening at a plodding pace. This morning, I looked out my front yard to find her bent over the dandelions. I crossed the street, intending to say a quick hello, but she determined to keep me by her side and show me the blooming green of her back yard. Once we’d stepped through the door at the back of her garage, she apologized for the wash she’d just hung that morning on the line. I was witness to her undergarments flapping in the breeze.

I was witness to her undergarments flapping in the breeze.
Jen Pollock Michel

“That’s the garlic,” Gail said, beginning the tour. She pointed beyond the clothesline to a small garden plot behind some chicken wire. “My husband’s finicky about his garlic.” Gail led me to the trellis close to the house, boasting that her clematis had been a thick, white canopy last summer. “Just a few green buds now,” she said. She pointed to the various varieties of plants in the well-kept beds, and I listened to Gail complain about their vagrant groundhog who returns, spring after spring, to eat her garden vegetables. “This year, he ate the tops off all my daffodils.” I would have thought her angry—“My husband is a patient man, except for that groundhog!”—but she described how the groundhog had looked unusually thin this year. “Sounds like you’re almost feeling sorry for him!” I joked.

“I almost am,” she admitted.

Just six months ago, my husband and I and our five children moved across the street from Gail. Before buying our small postage stamp of land and little brick house, for seven years we had lived Toronto’s winter and spring thaw, as vagrant as Gail’s groundhog. We’d come to Canada for my husband’s job in 2011, knowing that any day, any year, we might be leaving. Home was only as solid and as certain as the expiration date on our work visa. 

We lived in our first rental house, only to be told fifteen months later that we’d have to move because the owners would be re-occupying the property. We lived in our second rental house with the constant fear that the eviction would repeat itself. To stand in Gail’s backyard, hearing her tell me of the more than sixty years she and her husband have lived on the block, raising six children—with one bathroom—my voice caught with longing. “Oh, there’s so much beauty in that kind of rootedness,” I said to her wistfully.

I never thought we were choosing against home; I always thought home wasn’t choosing us.

In our almost twenty-two years of marriage, I don’t think we ever meant to choose the rootlessness of our lives, not when my husband had enjoyed an idyllic childhood just blocks from the hospital where he was born, not when I had suffered the transience of my own father’s career. It never seemed, at least, that we were favoring opportunity over permanence when we chose to move for a better job, for a master’s degree, and finally for an international adventure. I never thought we were choosing against home; I always thought home wasn’t choosing us.

In one sense, I suppose, there is always an elusiveness about our longing for home. After Adam and Eve were exiled from humanity’s first garden home, home has always stood like a mirage of promise. We near it—and it can seem to disappear. Families splinter. People die. Friends move. In one sense, these past six months have delivered on the promise of permanence, a thing we’ve been longing for. On the other hand, these past six months have also given us a leaky foundation, unreliable hot water, and two small mice in the lazy susan.

There’s something uniquely human about this kind of exchange of stories in a neighbor’s backyard, a moment showing the haphazard inefficiency of human intimacy.

You can say we added some gravity in our lives. You can also say we’ve just added headaches.

But I’m not as cynical about home as I sound. My tour of Gail’s backyard satisfies a deep longing within me. She shows me the hens and chicks sprouting in her front yard, and I remember that my mother had grown these succulents when I was a child. She tells me about her husband’s former work as an English professor at the University of Toronto, how he continues to volunteer at a local elementary school, reading to immigrant children, how he writes children’s books “even with the computer.” “The one he’s working on now keeps getting longer and longer,” she says. I feel time slow a bit when we stand beside the clothesline, and I inhale the scent of fresh laundry. There’s something uniquely human about this kind of exchange of stories in a neighbor’s backyard, a moment showing the haphazard inefficiency of human intimacy. We experience it simply by crossing the street and staying a while.

I know that Gail heard grief in my voice when I envied aloud her rootedness. I heard it in hers, too, when she described the Herculean task of beginning to empty the house of its contents—this courtesy owed to children and grandchildren in advance of their decline and eventual death. “Maybe you could do just one box at a time,” I tried helpfully suggesting.

“Even one box is hard,” she replied.

“Well,” I reassured, “if you’re enjoying the stuff, then enjoy it!” I know her children will hate me for the advice, but I can’t help wishing my neighbor this gladness.

I leave her to the dandelions—and cross the street toward home.

Jen Pollock Michel
Jen is the author of Keeping Place.

Cover image by Hauke Irrgang.

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