The back yard at my first house was immense, with a small woods in the back. A path through the woods led to a small stone wall I could just swing my four-year-old legs over. The woods were dark and not at all scary, full of happy mystery. Our yard went on and on and on and in the summers we had a pool. Tall oak trees shaded some of the yard, but left some of it sunny. I can feel the slippery, long bladed grass on my bare feet.
We moved when I was four and the new back yard had different charms. A cherry tree and two wide crabapples in the back corners, hugging our garage and the neighbor’s garage. There was a built-in sandbox with tiny shells in the sand, smaller than my pinky nail. My father filled in the sandbox soon after we moved in and the yard became a place to run, set up blanket tents, have doll picnics. Daffodils and tulips dotted the edges in spring, and a rough cement bench of a regal design gave the cherry tree a sense of grandeur. Honeysuckle thrived around the stone patio; we sucked the sweet drops out and it was never quite enough. Two pine trees, thick with sap, flanked the second floor balcony and sometimes we climbed up like the cats, getting our hands sticky. I wrote and illustrated a book about spring, imagining the flowers and trees of this back yard.
Childhood wonder gets attached to the places where wonder occurs. These back yards were not very big, really; I was just small. They were contained by shrubs and garages and fences shielding us from our neighbors’gaze, and keeping us from gazing at them. My imagination ran freely in these yards, yet it was also contained by the polite boundaries of suburbia. But my consciousness was wider than the limits of suburban mores. The memory of these yards is rich in my dreamscape.
My children had wonderful birthday parties in their first back yard, with pools that got bigger as they got older. I planted daffodils, tulips, and irises along the back edge, thinking of my second back yard. A vast apple tree showered white petals in spring and tough apples in the fall. The apples rotted and stank sweet, drawing yellowjackets if we didn’t pick them up and throw them into the untidy bushes at the back. I have pictures of my girls at every age in that yard, up until Lena was 9, and when we moved, they reminisced about its thick grass. Our new back yard was bigger, but shaded by dozens of pines, the sparse grass full of bouquets of orange needles. We had a few parties in it, egg hunts for Eliza’s April birthday, but none of the parties matched the magic of their first back yard.
I used to invent bed time stories for them about flying girls soaring over our first back yard, rescuing birds that had flown too high into the clouds. I imagined the story girls with wings like the angel wings in our costume box, hovering just above the white blossoms of our apple tree. I don’t think I specified that the girls were flying over our own yard, but that’s how I pictured it as the story unspooled. I hope my stories imbued their beloved yard with more of the childhood magic we all attach to the places that belong to us, in our eternal imaginations.