Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Magic Dirt and Me
When I was growing up, my parents owned a house for about 5 years in Sioux City, Iowa. We lived there until I was seven. Dad was always at work, selling water conditioners and farm implements, a real leap from his city jobs. He’d gone into business with his brother-in-law after drifting from one unrewarding position to another in Chicago.
My Mom was juggling four kids and sometimes six when our cousins came to live with us. She was not happy living away from Chicago, being near my dad’s sister and her family, people she never really liked, and feeling like she was existing in a rural desert, so alien from her big city life. Mom always liked the action of city streets and all the people watching you could do. She liked the infinite variety. She was like that her whole life. Neither of my parents was much interested in the outdoors, although my mom appreciated natural beauty. She always mocked my dad for saying, if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.
I spent a lot of time outside. I was an active child, distracted from the big outdoor world only by reading. I mostly played with my younger sister and a plentiful group of neighbor kids. We made up stories and acted them out, held long games of hide and seek, and played catch. But I had other interests. I remember standing at the fork of 23rd and McDonald streets, the corner at which we lived, intently watching bees disappear into the blossoms of a tall stand of multi-colored hollyhocks. Miraculously, they re-emerged after a short time. When I stuck my face in the flowers after the bees left, I always wound up wearing a yellow nose. I didn’t know what pollen was back then.
I also got my mom to make me an insect container, usually a pickle jar with holes poked in the lid. I filled it with twigs, leaves and grass and went off to hunt my favorite caterpillar. I didn’t know its name then but I never forgot what it looked like. This is the white tussock moth caterpillar, much more beautiful in this stage than as an adult moth. They were everywhere in Sioux City. Once I found one on a leaf in my current backyard which made me absurdly happy. If I stood patiently under a tree back then as a kid in Sioux City, I was often lucky enough to grab a tiny, slender, translucent caterpillar that was making its way to the ground, squiggling on a slender thread of insect silk. I’d catch these and watch them inch across my skin before letting them go. I loved the way they moved.
My parents didn’t pay much attention to what my biological interests were. Mostly they talked to me about how dirty I always got. My dad was the source of the first ethnic slur aimed at me – Chief Blackfoot. I remember how I’d stand in the bathroom sink, holding onto his shoulder while he tried to scrub the mud from between my toes.
We moved back to Chicago when I was seven. Mom was done with all things Iowa and dad’s venture into business was rather an abysmal failure. The house on 23rd Street was the last one our family shared. In Chicago we lived on the south side, on the third floor of an apartment building at 7746 South Cornell, right around the corner from my grandparents. The neighborhood was apartment-dense with a few duplexes tossed in between the talker buildings. There wasn’t much green. We had a little patch of dirt in front of our building. There was a ledge that you could sit on, just to the side of what was commonly referred to as the gangway. A true concrete jungle. Loads of kids poured out of those buildings for school and play. Our hide and seek games could include 20 children. We used a two block radius as our hiding boundary. We hid in basements and alleys, rather than behind shrubs or trees. We played kick the can in the alley a scant block from the Chicago Skyway, a heavily used road that in retrospect, seemed way too close for kid safety.
This was my city childhood. There was a vacant lot on my block where there were weeds and my new favorite insect, grasshoppers. I’d fasten my roller skates to my shoes, tighten them with a key and roll down to that lot to catch as many as I could. Then I’d sit on the ledge in front of our apartment building, putting them under a jar to watch them move about and spit their “tobacco juice.” Often I observed a group of them together. Sometimes I’d dissect them with a small kitchen knife to see what their insides looked like.
Life went on. I was an urban girl. I rode the Jeffrey 5 bus and took the Illinois Central train with its wicker seats down to the Loop. Before college, I had a job downtown and a daily commute like so many others. Then I moved away to attend college at the big state school sprawled in the middle of the corn and bean fields of Illinois.
Initially, I felt pretty alienated from my surroundings. I think the disparagement word of choice was “hick.” I was living among the hicks instead of the hip, urbane people of the city. But after my first two years, I got used to this town. The pace of life was slower and less hassled. After I left the dorms, I lived in houses converted to apartments. I had real yards. I got to have dogs.
I never went back to live in Chicago after my sophomore year. I stayed in Champaign-Urbana because I found that the easier pace suited my personality. My brain usually operated in overdrive and I came to realize that the relaxed surroundings and the ease of getting around was good for me.
Our last rental house, above.
When Michael and I moved in together in 1972, we spent the next 4 years sorting out who we were and trying to figure out if we were going to make a lifelong commitment to each other. We moved from place to place, sharing houses with roommates and eventually, living on our own. We figured out we were going to make it which surprised us both as we started out at only 20 and 22. We got married in 1976. And we started looking for a house to buy, a place to settle down, a place to get ready to build a family.
Me standing in front of our house in October, 1978, right after we moved in. The caption on the back says, “Our first house.” Who knew it would be our last house?
We found and bought our home in 1978. We didn’t have much money, but the house was broken into three apartments. We lived in the biggest one on the first floor and rented out the other two on the second floor to help with our mortgage payments. The interest rate in those days was 15 and 1/2 %. Sounds crazy now. It did then, too.
We moved in during the fall of 1978. The first months were spent reclaiming our space from years of rental neglect. We stripped wallpaper, painted and sanded floors. I’d started a new job that year and between these two life events, we were busy. Winter passed.
When spring came, we started to pay attention to the outside of the house. Constructed in 1893, it was easy to see that we had our work cut out for us. The building was one thing. But there was this enormous yard. So much dirt. More dirt than I’d ever been exposed to in my life. Dirt for Michael. Dirt for me. The size of our double lot was overwhelming. And overgrown. Essentially we’d bought a giant weed patch. The front yard was shielded from the street by a tangle of what were once honeysuckle bushes which had morphed into an impenetrable hodgepodge of volunteer trees.
We had two dogs but no fence. We tackled the bushes and volunteer trees first. That was backbreaking work even for us late twenty somethings. But we got it done. Then it was time for the fence. Michael dug all the post holes and poured the concrete with the help of some good friends. He was big and strong enough to handle fencing sections on his own. These jobs took up our first summer or two. I cleared a little patch of dirt by the front porch, bordered it with bricks and planted petunias and marigolds. We were homeowners. Landed gentry.
Years passed. In 1981, we had our first child. Another occupation, coupled with our full time jobs and the always beckoning needs of the house and the yard. As we settled into our home, I felt the stirring in me of those long ago days in Sioux City, when I wanted to be outside all the time, exploring nature and getting dirty. And Michael, who loved food started thinking about vegetables and herbs that he could pluck from his own ground.
Our soil was rich and dark. I realized that planting pretty annuals wasn’t going to be the right answer to turning our yard into a haven, a retreat that would soothe the soul after a long day. Michael confined his interests to the edibles and mowing the lawn. I always wanted to get rid of the lawn but I think his suburban upbringing made him feel that grass had a point.
I took over the rest of the yard. My nickname was the human rototiller. I can’t describe what it was like to remove the amount of sod required to get me into my mud. I was sore, but I loved it. Getting to nothing but my own earth canvas was so satisfying. I watched all the worms wriggling back underground and knew I’d have good aeration for whatever I grew. But actually, I didn’t want to get too well-informed about what plants would do well and which flowers went best with which others. To me, that made gardening a job. I just wanted to enjoy the pleasure of mucking around and seeing what might happen. I called my gardening style hurling. Throw it in the ground and see what happens.
Slowly the garden began to evolve. I didn’t like a manicured look but preferred a wilder affect. I began a garden journal almost immediately, pasting in photos of everything I planted, writing in when they went in the ground and when they disappeared. My historian side and my love of the dirt were good companions. I remember when I visited Monticello and saw Thomas Jefferson’s garden diaries. Mine aren’t that detailed but they work. And the inside joke of the spring in my family, became my annual pronouncement that the forsythia was in bloom.
Except for one stand of peonies and an old spruce tree, I’ve planted every shrub, every flower and every tree in my yard. Often my blooms are so big that people have said it feels like they’re Gullivers in Lilliput.
I’ve sobbed as I planted away through the years for all kinds of reasons, from a bad Mother’s Day, to a fight with Michael, to a death in my family. I’ve dug blissfully away after buying a long-desired plant, after waking from a good night’s sleep and the warm embrace of my husband, and I’ve experienced the flattery of having people come by my house with their cameras to photograph the results of my labor.
I’ve coaxed butterflies, hummingbirds and bees into my space by dangling their favorite treats everywhere. I’ve created a habitat for birds so there is always song in the morning and throughout the day. My curiosity about certain insects has led me to read wonderful books which changed the way I see the world full of life in the dirt under my feet.
When Michael died, I turned the bulk of his food garden into a refuge for pollinators, trying to help species which are endangered. So I’ve become a little more science-y than I was when I began my forays into the mud.
When I drive down my street and pull up to my driveway, I feel happy to see my garden, in all seasons. I’ve found a way to have interesting vestiges of my summer beauties that poke through the snow along with the evergreens. The connection between me and nature is profound. I find solace outside and an everlasting interest in the life I see around me. On my worst days, there is always a place to be, that for even a moment, relieved the pain and stress of grief and loneliness.
The magic dirt is a gift to myself, the kind of gift you discover accidentally, in the course of daily life. This magic is free and asks for nothing. I’m grateful that I heed what’s right in front of me. I’m lucky to have the time to acknowledge what is often ignored by people when they’re too busy, too pressured or too distracted to pay attention. As long as I can dodder around, my dirt and all that goes with it will be my treasured companion.