It's Not About the Backyard
My husband and I had an argument this morning. To be truthful, our arguments are like quiet misunderstandings, feelings that get felt in front of each other rather than sorted out internally and later presented in a kinder, more compassionate way. Our voices don’t get loud and we don’t shout or throw things or slam doors or disparage each other’s families or personalities. We just sort of look at each other with bewilderment, like, “I thought we were on the same page… why aren’t we on the same page?”
(Answer: because we’re different people. And, apparently, sometimes different people have different ways of going about their business.)
And so it was this morning. I work out early (6:30 am!) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a leftover habit from the days of driving kids to school and wanting to “steal” an hour to myself as they got ready for school, so I sauntered in and started to make a fancy stovetop Nordic spice oatmeal for my youngest (who later decided to have a frozen waffle, thank you very much). So maybe I was still a bit dazed from working out and in that sort of early-morning dream state when I turned to Raf and said, “You know, I think maybe I’m ready to make changes in the house.”
This has been a thing for us since the summer ended. With Emme going off to college and Serena heading that way next fall, we’ll be a three-person household with Marlowe before we know it. And a lot of the clutter and debris from our previous life as a family of young kids is still evident in our home. It’s not bad: school art projects collecting dust in corners; a beautiful but heavy chest I bought in Chinatown when Emme and Serena were babies; bits and pieces of old games and sports equipment; a mountain of shopping totes beside the front door, under the special hooks I bought for the girls to hang their backpacks on, labeled with an “E,” “S,” and “M.” All very Martha Stewart, from the days when that still mattered to me. And right before Emme left for school, Raf mentioned that it would be nice to make way for our new life by clearing out the vestiges of the old one.
It was easy for me to consent to digging up a large planter in the backyard, disposing of some old hydrangeas and dwarf palms with the intention of designing a succulent garden. But while Emme was still around, I couldn’t wrap my head around the design. It felt overwhelming to move on, even in the garden, while I was saying goodbye to my daughter as a full-time member of our household, to a life I loved with all three of my girls living under one roof all the time.
I didn’t want to be stagnant, though, so I promised Raf, “We can clear it out now, and once she’s at school, I’ll come up with a plan and a design.” It’s been a month since she started classes and the dirt patch is driving him nuts. But he’s a nice guy. He’s given me my space to come to terms with the new normal around here.
A few weeks ago, he said, “I’ve been thinking we could change the front room, maybe even the entry way. Fresh start.” I whole-heartedly agreed and we bought a new console, a lamp, some artwork. But it’s in the garage. I wasn’t ready to create a new entryway. It drives Raf nuts, but he’s a nice person. He’s kept his cool.
He’s said the first thing he wanted to do when we returned from UC Santa Cruz was to get rid of all the things that make our house still look like a refuge for a family with little kids: the trampolines, tree house, pool slide. He tried to entice me to dream along with him – “we can put a deck under the pines when the trampolines are gone,” he said, “for you to do yoga classes outside…” – but even these lovely plans were tinged with sadness for me. Taking out the plants where the dog (who passed away in 2017) used to nap on hot summer days, removing the pool slide (which we replaced because the original cracked as a friend slid down the first summer we lived here), dismantling the three trampolines where my kids and their friends would practice flips for hours under twinkle lights… it all felt a bit too intense, too real. And I haven’t been ready to let go of that other life yet.
In some ways, it might sound like I want to live in the past or don’t want my kids to grow up, but that’s not true. I love them as young women. They are teenagers, and that’s rough territory sometimes, but they are unique and unusual, and each day presents an opportunity to know them a little better, in ways that weren’t there previously.
But the backyard is the domain of a young family, and to talk about taking down trampolines is to talk about saying goodbye to being the mother of young kids, no longer serving lemonade to thirsty kids in the pool all summer long, no longer watching them turn cartwheels on the lawn as I make dinner or wash dishes. It’s opening the door to talking about empty nests and mortality and nothing staying the same and how someday we’re all gonna die.
So this morning, when I said I was ready to make changes, Raf seemed exasperated, as though he’s been waiting for me to make up my mind. He asked me for plans for the deck under the trees, for a design plan for the succulent garden, for a general idea of what to do with the entry way. But when I looked down the stairs at the front door, and imagined that one day soon my girls wouldn’t be coming through it after a school day, asking for a snack, talking about this test or that teacher, I felt tongue tied.
“One thing at a time,” I snapped. “I said we can get rid of the trampolines and we can maybe move the Chinese chest into the garage, but…”
“But what?” he asked. “What now? I don’t want to call a guy to come help with the trampolines if I can’t tell him what to put there next.”
“Just what?” He stared at me, as tears started to roll down my cheeks, then sighed. “I guess we just operate differently.”
I nodded, unable to answer fully. He’s right, though. Whereas I’m still stuck in the daydream of our old life with small girls splashing around the yard and a goofy yellow lab stealing birthday cupcakes, Raf is starting to see the backyard as it truly is: a backyard. And now that is my work, too, to accept what is and begin to let go of what was.