As I look around our yard on this crisp autumn day, I see the outdoor space that I’ve designed and ponder what it says about me. Walls of evergreens give privacy all year, and after a career spent working in the public eye, I enjoy solitude. The sense that this yard is an island of sorts is a welcome one.
A brisk wind sends a chill through me as I note the changes that have occurred here recently. The grapes have been harvested and most of the leaves have fallen from the vines on my homemade arbor. That arbor takes me back to my grandparents’ yard in southern Illinois and lets pleasant memories of my childhood dance in my mind. Under it, I re-live palling around with cousins, and relatives long-gone live again in my heart. When the weather is warm, it offers shade and a quiet place to read, write, and ponder life.
Two more leafless grape vines cling to steel trellises behind the garage and reveal the extent of my love for home-canned jelly. Stained glass decorations that adorned the garden shed have been removed in preparation for winter.
I pull out a chair and sit on the deck. It’s strangely silent now, as our gurgling water feature has been drained and put away. Cedar planters of rosemary and basil that once hinted at my love of cooking, and flowers in pots that added splashes of color to the railings are gone, too. The sweet smell of decomposing leaves tells of more changes to come.
A showplace yard it’s not, but a comfortable place to hang out and spend time thinking, it is. It makes me realize how much the spaces we design, the places we spend time in, say about us.
I’ve always loved to explore abandoned spaces, and was fortunate to have a job where that was one of my duties. Since I retired, I continue feeding that desire by attending demolition sales at houses being sold piece by piece before what’s left is torn down.
Walking through those houses gives me a small taste of the lives that were lived there. Often showing construction features from the 1950’s and 1960’s, they serve as a walk-through time capsule. Musty finished basements with paneled walls, tile floors laid down decades ago, built-in bookshelves, and bars tell of family get-togethers, and I always wonder what joys and heartaches were shared in those spaces.
Pencil lines on doorways mark children’s heights at different ages as they grew together toward adulthood and got closer to the day they would leave their childhood homes. Overgrown yards with stumps where majestic trees once flourished and concrete patios show me where people once sat and reflected on life, as I do now.
Occasionally, a decades-old family portrait appears among the cast-offs left behind. Its black and white portrayal of the home’s former inhabitants doesn’t provide answers, it only stirs more questions. I think about the people in the pictures who created these spaces. I wonder what became of them.
It underscores how fleeting both life and material things are. Sometime in the future, someone will likely walk through the spaces I’ve created and wonder about us, the family that used to live here, before the bulldozer takes what’s left. It stings a bit to think that will happen, that all the effort expended here will someday be undone.
Touring those empty spaces provides me with an unexpected benefit. It emphasizes that what makes those places feel so lonely is the absence of the people who once called it home. Their absence proves to me that it’s the people, not the place, that makes a home sing.
I find that I’m getting ahead of myself, as now is the time to enjoy this place I’ve created and the people in it, not worry about what will happen to it when I’m gone. I relax a bit more with the knowledge that once this canvas I’ve painted is wiped clean with the edge of the bulldozer’s blade, a new season will arrive. With it will come new people who will make it their home, and once again, it will come alive.