catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 10 :: 2007.05.18 — 2007.06.01


Here on earth

View a slideshow of some of the photographs mentioned in this article.

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush is afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.

- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I have a photograph—somewhere—of a rose.  Only in thinking about it recently did I realize I have no context for the photo other than the fact that I found it in my parents’ collection, but I’ve always assumed it was a rose from the back yard of their first house.  I imagine my mother, twenty-some years old and proud of the home she is cultivating with beauty, envisioning a perfect close-up as she aimed the camera.  In the background is the chain link fence that surrounded their little piece of earth.  Beyond the edges of the photo is the wooden swing set my dad made, and the sand box, painted sky blue.

Today, I still feel an exotic thrill when I drive through the old neighborhood, for the front of the house and the yards beyond were outside of my boundaries in those primary school days.  The back yard, however, was an extension of the womb and I felt at home in its oak shade, with wispy grass and acorns.  And the part my mom saw fit to photograph, the rosebushes, must have been there along the fence.  Is my imagination playing tricks on me or can I see them now, emerging from holes punched in the sod?

If the yard at home was a small space delineated by a fence, the yard at my grandparents’ cottage was: infinite!  On all sides, worlds to explore!  The discarded swing set under which the neighbors kept a compost pile—the first I ever saw.  The clubhouse on the edge of the woods where I found a salamander.  The odd hills where the yards converged—covering septic systems, they were near mountains to me then and a small patch of trees seemed a forest.  But dry land was just the half of it.  Sitting by the lake just last Sunday and watching the neighbor children brought back a flood of memories: fishing for walleye, bass, blue gill, sunfish and catfish off anyone and everyone’s docks, running up and down the shore with nets to capture frogs and turtles.  Our own back yard at the lake was not limited by suburban individualism, but expanded exponentially by a communal agreement to trust and delight in one another.  It’s as if the city folks were taking a break not only from their jobs, but also from the work of greed and self-preservation.

To this day, almost all of my sleeping dreams take place at the cottage.  Even after living there for two extended periods of time, even as I watch the little cottages give way to lakeside monstrosities, the childhood magic of that place persists—my subconscious mind tells me so.  But there is a wonder that lives in the suburbs, too.  I look for the photo of my mom’s rose, but cannot find it.  What I do find, however, is dozens of photographs I have taken of the yards that have ultimately been an extension of the first one—places where I have felt content. Certainly, the cottage makes an appearance here.  There are the terrible adolescent cottage photos of sunsets and goofy girl poses and neighborhood cows.  Later cottage photos, not much better in quality, record the cloistered winter sabbatical that drew us to Michigan, the trails of water that formed overnight as the frozen lake shifted with unearthly sounds.

But the documentation is not just of the times I escaped to the lake; many photos tell of the everyday back yards of my past.  There are ridiculous photos of my mom sunbathing and my grandparents standing in the driveway and my sisters holding our hamsters. Later, between hours working for the parks and recreation department the summer after I was married, I carefully recorded my great grandmother’s tulips and daffodils and magnolias that have given nearly half a century of springtime pleasure. Some photographs show the garden I planted with our housemate in Three Rivers and, more recently, of the treasures found and cultivated in our most recent yard: more tulips, dandelions, compost piles, rock borders.

I suspect my mother was in her own world when she photographed that rose but, whether by blood or by example or both, she was passing something down.  Surrounded by an alley, a chain link fence, a busy road that punctuated days and nights with the swish of passing cars, she allowed beauty to hold her attention right where she was, not where she wished she could be.

Perhaps this weekend, as we siblings and in-laws celebrate Mother’s Day by working in her garden, I’ll ask her to tell the story of that photograph.  And if she doesn’t remember, I’ll ask her to tell me again how my great grandmother used to bring her canaries out into the yard while she gardened.  I’ll ask her if she remembers the time she sent me out to play and I fell asleep in the middle of the yard.  And with dirty fingernails and grass-stained knees, we will take a family photograph to help us remember where we’ve been and give us hope for where we are going.

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