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When I went back to Virginia last spring, my brother and I went to Petersburg and looked for our grandparents’ house. We knew it was gone. We were looking for the physical place and any sign of the house or yard.
A house in the country has a name. A house in town is called by its street. The house on Bollingbrook Street. The house on High Street. The Pommel House. And my grandparents’ house on Shore Street was always called, simply, Shore Street.
The property, at the end of a row of half a dozen houses, covered seven acres, being about 400 feet of frontage and extending about 700 feet back from the road. The house itself was unexceptional: fairly large, frame, carpenter-built, two stories with an attic. But the wonder was the yard.
It was not a garden like mine that is full of flowers and fruiting trees. Rather, it was mostly lawn and shrubs and trees. Green, that is, by turns bright and shady, cool even in the hottest weather. It was called a yard, not a garden.
The house was set back about a third of the way from the street and to one side, near the other houses. The driveway climbed up from the street, past the front of the house, and circled a huge tree, in which there was a treehouse. In this part of the yard there was a dogwood that bloomed in the spring and a big magnolia tree.
Behind the house, in a grassy opening surrounded by shrubs and trees, a swing made of two ropes and a board hung from the high branch of a sturdy tree. In that private spot, you could swing by the hour.
At the back of the property, a couple of football fields from the front, was a long row of some kind of large, round shrub. Lilac? These bushes were maybe ten feet tall and mature, with dense foliage outside and clean, leafless limbs in the middle. You could part the branches and slip inside a little shrub-house, where the cool ground was bare, and sit on a low branch.
There was a box-bush garden, the only formal touch. It was a maze of Chinese box, the clipped leaves of which have a pleasing subtle fragrance in the hot sun. It was not a tall maze to get lost in, but a short one, barely two feet tall. This is the kind of maze that you look down on, and it makes a geometric pattern to please the eye.
At the far corner was a rose garden. My grandmother used to say she wanted ten children and a hundred roses. She had five children and about fifty roses, but it didn’t seem like a shortfall. Fifty roses in those days was a lot for an ordinary person. Each one had to come from someone, and you got it like this, I’m told: you bend down a branch, maybe breaking it a bit, and hold it down to the ground with a brick. Then you put a jar over the end that sticks up on the other side. You do this in the fall and hope to be able to dig out a little rooted new rose in the spring. So you see, fifty roses is a lot.
All along the far side of the property was a little wood with a path running down the middle of it. This part was sometimes slightly scary. Nowadays you would be abducted, raped and murdered there, but of course no one even thought of things like that back then, and it was only scary in a pleasant, Little-Red-Ridinghood sort of way. I would stroll into the wood and soon run out the other side with a little thrill. Once I saw a big white snake sliding out of a rotting stump. Somebody told me it was a milk-snake.
The front and center of the yard was a large, smooth, gently sloping lawn of the old-fashioned kind, with bees and clover and those nice old metal lawn chairs that spring back on their haunches just a bit.
I remember Shore street every time I hear blue jays scream in the morning. We lived in New York back then, right in the middle of the city, and birds were not a part of our daily lives. But as soon as school was out, we’d get on the train and head for Petersburg. It was a long trip, and we’d arrive late and tired, but the next morning, we’d hear the jays cry as they sailed between the tall trees in the morning mist. And we’d be there.
We played absolutely all day in that yard. Then we’d have dinner at about six and go back outside for the evening. Dusk began to fall in the summer between seven and eight. We’d play games on the lawn: Mother May I? and Red-light Green-light.
Does everyone still know these games? Everyone lines up on one side of the lawn, the up-hill side, and one person, who is “It,” stands on the other side. He or she calls out one person by name, and says, “So and so, you may take x number of giant steps” or “x number of baby steps.” That person must then say, “Mother may I?” before even lifting the first foot. If you forget to say Mother May I? you have to go back to the starting line.
What a wholesome game. You can only get across the lawn and tag the one who is It if you remember to ask Mother May I? before every step you take! In red-light green-light you start out the same way, with a line opposite someone who is It. The one who is It says, “Green light!” and everyone races to get across and tag the one who is It. But that person can at any time yell, “Red light!” And you have to stop on a dime. If you fall forward or take even the tiniest step, you have to go all the way back.
Now I truly do not remember anyone ever cheating, arguing about having to go back, playing favorites, or trying to be It an unfair proportion of the time. Is that possible? My brother Bil was the oldest, so I think it is possible that he set that tone. It would be just like him. He was always kind about playing with even the littlest squirts like me and my friend Pammie. There would also be his friend Russ and my sister. The grown-ups sat in the lawn chairs and talked and watched, and I suppose they supervised us some.
By the time we finished - - bed-time was eight-thirty - - fireflies were winking in the dark.
On rainy days we played in the attic. It occupied a full third story, smelled of dry, unfinished wood and was cut deep by dormers and rafters. It was full of treasures, chief among which was an old steamer trunk with a rounded top. It was full of old clothes. I mean, old. My grandparents were married in 1909 and built the house on Shore Street in 1911, the year my mother was born. They moved in that summer.
There was an old sidesaddle, too. Long ago, my grandmother had a horse named Blackjack, and she rode well. Once she came flying around a corner and found a group of men in the street digging a ditch. It was too late to stop. She had just time to collect her horse, leapt clear over the whole thing, and galloped away.
I put the sidesaddle over the top of the trunk, dressed up in a long, old-fashioned, sky-blue taffeta gown and galloped after her.
We found the driveway. A brick ranch house stood in the middle of the lawn, and there was a row of cottages across the back where the line of shrub-houses once stood. The house was gone without a trace. Bil thought the magnolia was the same one, but when I showed Aunt Be the picture, she disagreed. It’s a big tree, but then it has been fifty years, so I suppose it could be another big tree.
My grandmother, whom we called “Mama,” wrote that her husband’s mother carried with her all her life the memories of her father’s beautiful garden on Franklin Street. I carry the memories of Shore Street.
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