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In my mind, the moment occurred many times, but as my father was ill during most of my childhood, there could have been very few occasions when we would have been riding together on the bus from Harvard Square to Park Circle in Arlington Heights, a short walk from our home. The moment that I recall so firmly and vividly, whether it happened just once or more than once, is this. On its way along Brighton Street in Belmont, just west of Hills Crossing, our bus passed a large old mansion, painted white, with tall pillars and a veranda in front. It was by far the greatest house around, quite out of place in that neighborhood of truck farms and smaller, newer homes.
What my father found remarkable was not the structure itself, but the sweep of lawn to one side of it, separated from the building by a gravel driveway that went far back, probably to a carriage house out of sight. This lawn that we beheld for just a fleeting moment, my father let me know, in a voice filled with admiration, almost awe, was a lawn as perfect as a lawn could ever be.
It was about 50 yards deep and 15 yards wide. Across the driveway were shrubbery plantings, and toward the back, a large tree, probably an oak. I believe that another large tree stood in the front of the house, for in my mind the lawn is always dappled in shade. No flowers; just green, a study in shades of green.
I passed that lawn many times after my father’s death, always of course recalling his admiration, and always concurring in his judgment. It was a perfect lawn.
My father knew something about lawns. i have been told that his lawn at our home in Arlington Heights, until he was too ill to maintain it, was considered a showpiece in the neighborhood.
It was not a large lawn. The house stood on a corner lot, and very close to the street. There was very little front yard, and almost no backyard at all. Only the side yards allowed him reasonable space for gardening. My parents had passed papers on the house, their first and only house, in the midst of the Great Depression, in fact on the day before FDR closed the nation’s banks to prevent panic withdrawals. I was born a month after that, in April 1933. When my mother brought me home from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, it was to what was for both of us a brand-new house.
There is a picture of that new house, shingled, two stories, a colonial, taken by my father a few months later, dated September 1933. The view shows the front and west sides of the house. In addition to the small foundation shrubs, probably planted by the builder, there are three poplar trees that my father planted that first summer and a large oak tree toward the back of that side lawn. In the east side yard, almost out of sight, is an apple tree; the lot on which the house stood had once been part of an orchard.
The lawn itself has been mowed and clipped for the photograph. Just a few months old, it already looks full and lush. My father loved to mow and rake and trim and water. When he finished, he would carry the cuttings across the street in a bushel basket and toss them along the edge of the pasture there. After a few years, this accumulation formed a ridge of thick underbrush.
Another photograph, taken from the same spot perhaps six years later, shows a very different yard. The poplars and the apple tree are gone, casualties of the September 1938 hurricane. (The apple tree was not missed; it was diseased and bore wormy fruit.) And there is now a picket fence, perhaps 12 feet long, bisecting the lawn, running from the southwest corner of the lot toward the same corner of the house. My father’s intention in building this fence and placing it at this unusual angle was to discourage neighborhood kids from cutting across his lawn. As the photo also shows, he had rerouted the pipe to the oil tank in the cellar, extending it so that it ran alongside the front of the house, just below the bottom row of shingles, to a cement block the size of a small tombstone that he had built at the end of the front walk. This ingenious construction allowed the oil deliveryman to connect to the pipe from the front walk instead of dragging his hose across the lawn, staining and killing the grass.
Soon after though, by 1940, my father had dismantled the picket fence and planted a privet hedge around three sides of the yard. (On the east side a stone wall separated our property from that of the neighbor next door.) Planting what I estimate to be 200 feet of privets was a huge undertaking. Whether or not it was my father’s main intention, the privets assured protection for the lawn that they enclosed.
That there are no flowers in the early photograph is not surprising; my father preferred lawn and greenery. But out of view there was, or would be by 1940, a very small kitchen garden. A red floribunda rose climbed a trellis against the cement wall of the back staircase. In front of it were a pale purple azalea, a yellow perennial alyssum, and red and white clusters of sweet william, biennials that kept reseeding themselves. Also near the stairs were two large peony plants, one with deep crimson blossoms and the other with white. I think that my father liked peonies less for their huge and fragrant blossoms than for their shiny dark foliage.
I believe that my father wanted me to share his passion for gardening. (My older brother was a lost cause in this regard.) There is a photograph in which he has posed me at watering the lawn. I am perhaps four or five, dressed in a little baseball cap, seersucker overalls, and sandals. I am ignoring the camera, concentrating on my task. My hose is pointed directly to my left, casting a fine spray over cropped grass. Then there was a lawn ornament that he bought for me, a wooden cutout of a kind popular at the time, each side painted identically. Mine showed a young girl wearing a bonnet and a summer frock, her extended arm holding a watering can. My father’s name for her was “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.” The ornament did not last a season. It was stolen, my father thought by some yard-trampling kid who had run afoul of him.
I did not take to gardening. One of my early chores was to hold up those droop-headed peonies so that my father could mow beneath them. I remember those moments as frightening, though whether because of the oncoming mower blades or my father’s sharp commands I cannot say. As my father’s illness worsened and he could no longer tend to his yard, this responsibility fell to my brother and to me. Maintaining the hedge was a continuous chore. My job each spring was to remove by hand the fallen leaves that had become wedged in its branches. My brother’s summer job was to keep the hedge trimmed waist high. We hated that hedge. And the hedge turned out to be not quite the buffer that my father had intended. Roughhousing older boys delighted in pushing one another into it, arousing my father’s ire as he watched helplessly from a window.
Those last years must have been very difficult for him. A great part of his life’s dream was to have his own home, his own yard. Now, in his fifties, he was cut down by a degenerative illness, something akin to ALS, and, amidst other sadness, his showpiece yard was getting minimal care from his disinclined sons. My mother did what she could, but she had care of the house and of him. She did help me start my own victory garden in the strip of soil behind the house, a place too shaded for tomatoes. My sole crop was the only vegetable that I would eat at that time, green beans, Kentucky Wonders.
All the years that i knew him, my father was ill, my father was cranky. (These words are related in German, I learned later—krank means ill.) I regret that so many of my memories are touched by his irascibility, and that it is only with difficulty that I recall the obstacles he overcame in his life. His schooling ended with sixth grade, when he lost a year recovering from tetanus —it nearly killed him—and, according to family legend, was too embarrassed to return at a grade lower than his friends. His first wife died in childbirth, leaving him with a son, my brother. My father’s talents were great; not just gardening, but photography and carpentry. And he was an autodidact; geography and history were his specialties. In his overstuffed chair next to the Philco table radio, he would follow the progress of World War II, coordinating the reports of overseas correspondents with the maps in his Rand McNally atlas spread open on his lap. He wrote poems; he kept journals; he could tell a story. His lawn was almost perfect. Now 60 years later, though I do not share his gardening ambitions or standards, I do push a reel mower, and I water and clip my lawn by hand.
I was 14 when my father died in 1948, right at the start of the new year. His decline had been steady for almost a decade. Others understood—and I certainly must have understood—when the end was drawing near, though this event was not talked about in my presence. Our gift to him that Christmas had been a rosary, which soon would be wrapped around his fingers when he lay in wake in an open casket. My own Christmas presents included dress-up clothes—a white shirt and knickers.
He lived his last year in a hospital bed downstairs in the sunroom, but for his final day on earth the bed had been wheeled into the living room. A candle in its holder burned on a pedestal, replacing for that day a marble statue of the Venus de Milo. This alabaster reproduction had been my father’s favorite wedding gift, though one that my mother did not quite approve of. The lady’s arms were missing, he used to tease me, because she bit her fingernails—as I did. It was a family joke.
It was early afternoon when he died. A great blizzard was blowing outside, the storm of the winter. The roads were impassible; I am sure that explains why no priest was present at the deathbed. The curate at St. James Parish, first it was Fr. Rossiter and later Fr. Everard, in several earlier emergencies had responded to my mother’s predawn telephone calls and driven to the house to administer Extreme Unction, as the Anointing of the Sick was then called, to my father. On the evening previous to this day, my Aunt Anna, the sister to whom my mother felt closest, had come from her home in North Cambridge ahead of the storm, to stay overnight. So there were four of us around the deathbed, my mother, my brother, my aunt, and me. My mother stood very close to my father, bending over his body from time to time, talking to him as he labored for breath.
As the end came near, she curled his fingers around the crucifix that all their lives together had hung above their bed. When my father was drawing his very last, quick breaths, he gripped it tightly, my mother told us later, this final gesture a sign of his faith.
In my own memories, his spiritual life might be characterized as wary. He had not been inside a church for many years, of course; his illness had prevented that. “Be sure to give my regards to the Reverend Maurice,” he would regularly call to me from his bed as I left the house to go to Sunday Mass. “The Reverend Maurice” was Fr. Maurice O’Connor, pastor of St. James Parish, whom I knew my father considered highfalutin, a very stuffed shirt. I did not then and do not now find any great incongruity between what I perceived as my father’s jaunty irreligiosity and my mother’s interpretation of his deathbed action. When his life had gone, we all knelt and prayed for the repose of his soul.
The storm continued. By evening, the front yard was an undulating cover of snow, rising even to shield those privets whose planting nearly a decade ago was certainly my father’s last major work of gardening. My uncle Bill, my mother’s brother, who lived on the other side of town and had a connection in the Department of Public Works, arranged for a snowplow to come and clear the street and the gravel sidewalk, piling a huge bank of snow at the edge of the pasture across the street. All through the night my mother, my aunt, and my brother took turns at the side of my father’s body, watching, according to the old custom. The next day the funeral director, Danehy from North Cambridge, would be coming and going, preparing for a home wake. Cars of mourners would arrive, and neighbors would be bringing their homemade pies and cakes. I would awake to the bustle in the house.
Paul Doherty is an associate professor of English at Boston College.
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