| Personal Accounts |

My Backyard

Playground. Oasis. Hideaway. Magical Kingdom. Twenty-two women tell of sun and swings, treehouses and tranquility

 

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Treehouse

Rachael Lavon

W

 

e are the amphibious creatures of my grandparents’ backyard.

We glide beneath the water in search of secret coves until the chlorine stings and the California sun scorches the spots we missed and we remember that imaginary games are for children. Once on dry land our necks are inspected. We can’t trust them to put on their own sunscreen they’re still children the adults admonish. But I see no cherubic child amid the gangly limbs teeth shackled with metal hair that frizzes into a halo around my face.

I find refuge from this disparity on the outskirts of Perfect.

Past the pristine white carpet plump white couches. Past the humming pool the light cushioned chaise lounges lined up like lazy summer soldiers. Past the Cabana and expectations flower beds and requests. We tiptoe toward a dense knot of leafy trees. Pebbles shift beneath us and we hush each other though we aren’t breaking any rules my cousin and I we’re simply disappearing. The quiet slinking away of children who believe they’re no longer children. (Excerpted from Family First Issue 548)

Strokes of Love

Esty Heller

T

he AC compressor grumbles to life the turbine’s vanes gobbling fallen leaves and I squint. My neck is wet with sweat and I’m tired bored lonely.

Summer means death unto the city houses empty and lifeless. My neighbors splash away in real pools in the Catskills my siblings cheer their kishkes out in camp. I’m the youngest in my family too young for sleepaway camp so I stay home just me. Afternoons stretch lazily endlessly. My spirit drowns in the soupy air.

The gate creaks. My mother strides through the grass balancing a huge art board an ice cream cone paints brushes. I help her spread a plastic cover over our patio table and we find weights — a bottle of seltzer stones — to keep the plastic down. My mother clips my hair up off my neck and a passing breeze sucks in the beads of sweat.

I lick my cone while my mother squirts paint — purple silver fives shades of green — onto a plate our makeshift palette. A cup of ice water and then we select brushes.

It’s a paint-by-number and we start with the trees. My mother shows me how to layer the greens to lend the leaves texture. We hunch over the colors two celebrated perfectionists and shade the microscopic gaps. Time freezes as we work. There are no worries no heat no fatigue. (Excerpted from Family First Issue 548)

The Little Cowboy

Esther Ilana Rabi

S

he was thoroughly cowboy.

From the moment she awoke and donned her chaps boots two-gun holster checked shirt string tie and hat she was Old West incarnate. Although she had to shed this second skin to go to nursery school — where girls wore skirts — in her mind and to her family she was always “Hoss Sheriff of Marshal City.”

Occasionally people seemed to doubt she really was a cowboy and she needed reassurance. “Are you sure cowboys wear dresses to shul?” she asked her mother. But her mother was a worthy buddy who never once let the illusion dim.

“Of course ” she replied. “Hands up! You’re under a dress!”

Except for the nervous babysitter who kept her from taking her rocking horse out to the backyard for a gallop life had always gone smoothly for the little cowboy.

Until the day the snake came. (Excerpted from Family First Issue 548)

 

A Classroom Out Back

Chanie Spira

N

o one remembers how Zeidy got the three planks and heavy bricks to build our special “perek benches.” But the planks and bricks faithfully do their job week after week year after year and by now decade after decade. And they’re still strong and sturdy.

It may be 2017 with educators lamenting about declining attention spans. But for one and a half hours every single Shabbos afternoon close to 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren sit in The Backyard on three planks of wood forming a ches listening raptly to Perek Zeidy talk about Pirkei Avos and then they sing their special perek songs.

It’s a full classroom with children ranging from ages two to thirteen. No visual aids no moving screens. No one knows how he does it but when it comes to Perek Zeidy one doesn’t ask questions.

It took me a while to realize that this 30-year-old tradition has only marginally to do with Pirkei Avos.

It may be 2017 with educators lamenting about declining attention spans. But for one and a half hours every single Shabbos afternoon close to 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren sit in The Backyard on three planks of wood forming a ches listening raptly to Perek Zeidy talk about Pirkei Avos and then they sing their special perek songs.

It’s a full classroom with children ranging from ages two to thirteen. No visual aids no moving screens. No one knows how he does it but when it comes to Perek Zeidy one doesn’t ask questions.

It took me a while to realize that this 30-year-old tradition has only marginally to do with Pirkei Avos. (Excerpted from Family First Issue 548)

Backyard Pool

Shira Isenberg

I

was in Walmart this week and I saw the pool.

My little boy has been after me to get one. He loves swimming and it helps with his sensory issues. But I don’t really want a backyard pool. It’s a hazard to leave them full of water so you have to empty them all the time. They get moldy if they don’t dry just so and they ruin the grass underneath. I’d rather just take him to the JCC but I’m here at the store anyway; may as well take a look see how much they cost.

There it was on the shelf — the pool of my youth. I had forgotten all about it until I saw it again. If you were a kid in the ’80s you probably had the same one: flimsy sides — white with cartoons or drawings of some sort — that only stood erect once the pool was filled with water and that bright blue bottom.

We would swiftly change into our bathing suits and run down the stairs towels swinging to the patio in the backward. I can picture the five of us girls some with matching polka-dot bathing suits some who got new ones and invariably at least one in a weighed-down diaper arguing over who gets to hold the hose. (Excerpted from Family First Issue 548)

Rings of Wisdom

Chaya Glatt

S

ome of my favorite childhood memories took place when I was all alone in my backyard.

A sensitive child with a flighty imagination I didn’t need anyone’s help to make magic happen. I knew that if you closed your eyes and squinted at the sun those bright flashes of color you saw against a black backdrop were glints of magic that were normally invisible. Dandelion flowers were garlands for a princess’s tiara; the old rickety swing could travel through time and space.

To fill a hole under the bush I gathered rotten leaves and sticks hoping they would decompose into the soil. That little compost heap became a thriving metropolis of insects that passed an entire season under my tender care. And there was no greater pleasure than running barefoot over the tickly grass and cool moss that covered the yard.

At the edge of the patio a tree stump with rows and rows of thin careful rings became my quiet thinking place. I thought its old wisdom could seep into me by virtue of my respect for it. I would sit on it for long moments watching ants scurrying around the anthill nearby. Their hurried goal-driven manner communicated a sense of purpose and urgency that immediately won my admiration.

The backyard was where I reconnected with myself where there were no demands or rules — only wild indifference rugged beauty and endless imagination. There I dreamed stories that became pages of childish handwriting dog-eared pages that rustled in the breeze filled with little girls and fairies pirates and kittens. The backyard was a place that nurtured the writer in me. Miraculously the writer within stayed as I grew even when I left the backyard and my childhood far behind. 

 

The Back Alley

Raizy Stone

W

e signed the lease to our house in a new community, sight unseen. When neighbors described the property, it sounded fine and dandy. “In back of your house, there’s a small yard that opens onto a communal alley. You’ll love that alley! Such a blessing! The kids have company and play outside all afternoon in summer.” I envisioned scooters and bikes and jump ropes, the afternoon sun shining, laughter in the healthy outdoors.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. The alley was full of bikes and scooters — and trash and discarded furniture, too. A shining sun, but only a narrow strip of sky between roofs. Outdoors, but a concrete slab rather than a grassy haven. Gray, not green. City, not suburban.

I hadn’t realized how much green meant to me. Or maybe I never realized what a suburban snob I was. The alley did not tempt me. It represented all that was low-class about our new surroundings.

Summer progressed. Sounds of play drifted in through open windows. The kids begged to go outdoors, and I spent my energies keeping them inside, unless we had time for the park. Occasionally, after hours of indoor play, I’d agree to the yard, “but only for ten minutes.” Schlepping scooters and doll carriages, we’d emerge from our gate. I’d stand stiffly, holding my toddler’s hand. Around us, kids raced and squirted water, mothers schmoozed on plastic chairs. The ground was littered with cartons, wrappers, and unwanted chairs without backs.

What happened next was far from low-class. I was welcomed, royally. Trikes and Cozy Coupes were freely lent to my delighted kids, offers of help and warm introductions came from each of the alley ladies. Along with sharing the limited space, the women shared their stories and the kids shared ices.

At the summer’s end, our family still wasn’t spending each afternoon in the yard and alley. But I did loosen up a little. It was nice to have adult conversation on a Shabbos afternoon. It was also nice when kids knocked on the door to play with my daughter or waved to her at recess because “we live on the same back alley.”

And when we finally moved on to a house with its own little garden, in a certain small way I missed the communal life and the easy company of the “back alley.”

 

Hazy Days and Hammocks

Miriam Klein Adelman

I

t’s not much to look at.

A series of crisscrossed ropes attached to two wooden beams and hanging between two trees in my backyard. It reminds me of the hammock you’d see swinging in a pirate ship, if you ever saw a pirate ship. Sometimes I’ll bring a blanket and pillow and sometimes I’ll go for the raw experience. Tucked away in the corner of my backyard and shaded by tall pines, the hammock has become my safe haven.

The wind sighs. The green leaves, gilded by the sunlight, wave hospitably, welcoming me to their corner of the yard. The gossiping sparrows and scuttling squirrels and rabbits create the illusion that I am far away, in a secluded nook of a forest. I relax on the hammock and begin to read a book. After not many minutes, the book slides out of my hands. I fall into sleep.

My dreams are often phantasmagoric, as dreams usually are. I’m flying away on the hammock as if it’s Aladdin’s magical carpet. We are over the South Pacific, aiming for a tiny island with a lone palm tree. Or the hammock is still attached to the trees, but I’m swinging back and forth, faster and faster. While I’m thus flying in this liberating and frighteningly out-of-control way, my children are talking to me. I hear my 12-year-old son state very clearly that he wants $50 to buy a new watch. I hear myself state “no” as I’m borne higher and higher in the air. He shrieks at me, “Did you see the sun? Say hello for me.” I try to wake myself up. I know I’m in a dream but I seem to be stuck in this world. More dreams pass me by.

I hear noises again. Whispers. I can’t see anything, but I know someone’s there. Maybe someones. I am fully awake and there they are. My five-year-old neighbors have burrowed through the hole in the backyard fence and stand two inches in front of me, staring and whispering loudly.

Time to smile and escape to my other safe haven, my bedroom.

Strokes of Love

Esty Heller

T

he AC compressor grumbles to life, the turbine’s vanes gobbling fallen leaves, and I squint. My neck is wet with sweat, and I’m tired, bored, lonely.

Summer means death unto the city, houses empty and lifeless. My neighbors splash away in real pools in the Catskills, my siblings cheer their kishkes out in camp. I’m the youngest in my family, too young for sleepaway camp, so I stay home, just me. Afternoons stretch lazily, endlessly. My spirit drowns in the soupy air.

The gate creaks. My mother strides through the grass, balancing a huge art board, an ice cream cone, paints, brushes. I help her spread a plastic cover over our patio table, and we find weights — a bottle of seltzer, stones — to keep the plastic down. My mother clips my hair up, off my neck, and a passing breeze sucks in the beads of sweat.

I lick my cone while my mother squirts paint — purple, silver, fives shades of green — onto a plate, our makeshift palette. A cup of ice water, and then we select brushes.

It’s a paint-by-number, and we start with the trees. My mother shows me how to layer the greens, to lend the leaves texture. We hunch over the colors, two celebrated perfectionists, and shade the microscopic gaps. Time freezes as we work. There are no worries, no heat, no fatigue.

If my mother is weighed down by anything, I can never tell. Her focus is locked on the trees, then the lake, and — as the weeks advance — on the tiny boats and the clouds of the masterpiece we create. We chat a bit, but mainly we bend low and mind the thin outlines.

To the backdrop of the air conditioner humming on, groaning off, the scenery comes to life.

We never get around to framing and hanging up our masterpiece. My siblings return, the new school year begins, there’s Yom Tov, weddings, life.

But I don’t need to see the results. For two months, I’m the only thing in the world that matters to my mother.

Green Stripes

Shoshana Neumann

T

hey say an Englishman’s home is his castle, but my father’s domain is the garden.

Just like we kids had to help around the house, we were expected to hoe and weed and rake up the fallen leaves on the garden lawn. Memories of mowing the lawn are much more vivid than those of washing dishes.

The lawn mower was a heavy weight to push, the sharp whirring metal blade mere inches from my feet. I would get into a rhythm, pushing and pulling while trying to remember to steer clear of the extension cord that snaked its way through the clumps of grass.

It was physically tough, not the regular nice-Jewish-girl kind of pastime, but it had a grueling kind of satisfaction. And when I finally finished and stepped up onto the uneven stone patio to survey my work of art (yup, I even managed to get those perfect green stripes), I felt 11 feet tall. I’m still waiting for Chanel to produce “eau de freshly cut grass.” The fragrance is divine…

I grew up and the lawn mower retired. The job has been taken over by some hefty, tough men, who yell to each other in Eastern European gibberish, as they expertly finish my parents’ garden in minutes. My horticultural exploits have veered a little off course, and I’m presently trying my hand at helping my little sabras develop (with a touch of British pruning).

Last week, while walking down Rechov Sorotzkin together with the kids, we chanced upon a gardener, trimming a grassy edge. My kids looked on in fascination. I closed my eyes and breathed in, seeing a tall, dark ponytailed 12-year-old, grass stains on her Stevenson skirt, carefully steering the lawn mower down the garden.

Magical Kingdom of Ours

Faigy Peritzman

I

’ve never been to Disneyland. And I’ve never felt I was missing out. I had my own magical kingdom every summer, under the balmy skies of Seattle where we’d travel to spend vacation with my grandparents.

Opa and Oma’s ranch-style house couldn’t really contain our exuberant spirits. But the backyard more than made up for it. We all have the most delicious memories of running through sprinklers, shooting basketballs on the patio, zooming on Big Wheels around the perimeter of that patio (watch out for the ball!).

Down one side of the picket fence ran a thicket of plum trees. I’d sit there under the musty warmth, collecting plums, leaves, and twigs, concocting potions and elixirs from the succulent fruit.

Along the back fence was a row of weeping willows, our aravos arbor. The long fronds could be braided into ropes used for hairbands, jumping rope, or to lasso a runaway bandit that might invade our territory.

Running along the other side fence was a stone ledge under a stand of pine trees. This became our stage, and we’d perform grand plays and dances.

There were stone steps leading to the house with terraced rocks on either side, perfect for climbing mountains and for daring rappelling feats to the patio below.

The possibilities were as endless as the long lazy days of summer fun.

When I was 12, I started spending summers at sleepaway camp and there went my oasis in the Magical Kingdom of Ours.

The summer after seminary I took a trip cross-country to visit Seattle again. My grandparents were no longer living in the house, but I pulled up to the quiet street and walked around to look at the backyard.

There it all was. The thicket, the patio, the willows, the ledge. Everything as I remembered it. But the magic was gone. Instead, I was shocked at how small the entire thing was. What I remembered as acres of promise was a standard-size suburban yard with a postage-size patio and some trees around its perimeter.

The “stage” was so narrow I couldn’t fathom how I ever stood, let alone danced along its ledge.

I turned away, heavy with the reality of adulthood. It’s true — you can never go home again. Yet I’m comforted knowing that I’ll always be queen in the magical Kingdom of Memories of enchanted childhood.

A Single Bloom

Millie Samson

E

ach time we return to our Beit Shemesh dirah from our London home, I rush to raise the heavy blinds, and peer into the garden. The garden sold us on the apartment: that scrubby wilderness, host to all manner of surprises.

Five miniature fir trees called it home. For us, born and raised in England, fir trees had connotations we wanted to leave behind. In Israel, trees symbolize growth, life rising from arid deserts. My request to cut them down was met with shock and vehement shaking of heads. Those trees would stay.

Until one day I saw a spider as big as my hand, its web encompassing the whole tree. In a garden where our precious grandchildren played, trees hosting enormous spiders had to go — and go they did.

The garden burst into life! That first spring we waded through knee-high grass dotted with tiny jewel-like flowers. Giant fennel, stems thick as a baby’s arm, and thorny thistles rose above the undulating pasture.

Spreading along the fence in a celebration of life, long tendrils grasping the battered bamboo, our vine appeared, festooned with minute green grapes.

This year, we return after Pesach. In the garden, the perfume of decaying apples drifts on the breeze. Has some small person, apple in hand, lost his prize in the undergrowth? Then I see it, sheltered by the wall — a single velvety petal, deep purple, wrapped around a black spike, nestling within a cluster of leaves.

Even before our grandchildren are through the door, I drag them to our rare visitor. “It’s a Palestine Arum Lily — don’t touch,” I warn. “It’s poisonous!”

We watch tiny fruit flies disappear inside the black flower, trapped by a blockade of hairs. The children fire a barrage of questions:

“How will they escape?”

“Will they die?”

“What’s that smell?”

I answer each one as they scrutinize this stranger with awe.

The following day, they charge outside. Our lily has changed. The petal droops and a spiky ball lurks in its depths. “That’s where seeds develop,” I explain, “We’re so lucky. It only grows a few weeks a year and each flower lasts just a few days! If we had come next week…”

As we pack, a posse of children appears. “We’ll watch the flower,” they tell me, “and report back.”

And they do. I get regular updates until it dies.

“Next year,” I tell them. We can’t wait!

Woman in the Window

Rivka Streicher

R

ight in the middle of densely populated London, dark-brown brick facades on all sides, a space of grass and air and laughter. A backyard shared by eight apartment blocks. Long and green. Nary a tree or a flower, but somewhere to tumble out of the small homes and run, run on the wind.

Rough games of “Red Rover,” “Pinocchio,” “Peep behind the curtain,” and “Catch” with the neighbors. Skipping rope and Scooby-doo with my tamer friends from school. All played in shrill childish voices, shrieking with glee, or screaming during the (not so) occasional fight. But none are a match for the voice from the fifth-floor window.

She lived way up, at the top of one of the buildings, her hair was white and her face orange. And when she screamed, it became hot pink, maybe even red, but none of us stuck around long enough to see.

We would scatter, flee for our lives, and hide all the way at the bottom of the garden.

“Shtill, kinder,” she screamed, in a Yiddish so richly inflected it would put today’s chassidish Yiddish to shame.

There was nothing outwardly Jewish about her. Her hair was cropped and curly and very much uncovered. Her sleeves billowed above her elbows. That was all we saw of her. We thought she had grown out of the window.

She hadn’t. My mother said she was a Holocaust survivor. She’d grown up in unthinkable times. And lived through them.

She’d ended up here, in a crowded Jewish area, where children frolicked and Yiddishkeit was celebrated, but it was too late for her. She’d left it all behind in the flames, and the voices of little Jewish children at play reminded her of her past and she couldn’t bear it. It brought back another life, a life turned agony, pain seared into her arm and heart.

But I only found all that out later.

Growing up, she was our biggest fear and biggest challenge. Our fun and frolicking were colored by the creak of her window and her voice. We were terrified of her, but somehow excited when she’d shout, too. There was always that unspoken dare: who could stay unafraid longest?

Just before we moved out of the neighborhood, my mother decided to give the “shouting lady” shalach manos. She insisted I come with her, and I recall climbing the steps in sheer terror.

But when she opened the door, she was a woman, not an angry face at the window. She had a living room, with fruit and photographs; up close, she just looked old, vulnerable.

On Purim, that upside-down day, I found myself on her turf, staring down at the garden from the other side of the window.

Our Secret Garden
Ahava Ehrenpreis

I

n Brooklyn, New York, where I live, the term backyard carries significantly different meaning from the same term I used growing up in Detroit, Michigan. Still, I was determined to turn my Brooklyn backyard into my country sanctuary.

I surrounded it with large fir trees, and right off the kitchen, there are wide glass French doors opening to a deck. As soon as the first winter frost begins to melt, the groundhog and I are focused on the arrival of spring.

When I should be thinking shalach manos themes or even pre-Pesach closets, I’m counting down to window boxes and planters overflowing with bright colored pansies (they like the early spring chill), sunny yellow, shades of lilac, prepainted with happy smiley faces — little splotches of bright white dotting each bloom.

Next stop: Home Depot, where early spring means bargains — “3 for $10.00!” Little pots of herbs (sniff that basil), bright, green-leaved shade plants in pots with purple and white and yellow abstract designs, a dignified backdrop for my smiling pansies, the spectrum of Hashem’s palette.

In the early morning, before the street noises of the nearby avenue have begun, birds (back from the south or were they just hibernating along with me?) are the symphonic background. Frequently, a family of red cardinals stops by to pay their respects and revel with me in spring’s return.

But it’s on Shabbos morning that I truly reap what I have sown. After my morning coffee and a quick read, visiting grandchildren pop out, still in pajamas, for their coffee (cocoa) and a pile of favorite storybooks on the three-seater swing. Shabbos afternoon, the garden table, covered in a tablecloth splashed with brightly colored fruit, is where the games are played. Of course, Shabbos party cannot be held anywhere else.

All is somehow more special in our own secret garden, theirs and mine to share, shaded by the stately oak trees, the flowers around us, and the sky above.

 

The Little Cowboy
Esther Ilana Rabi

S

he was thoroughly cowboy.

From the moment she awoke and donned her chaps, boots, two-gun holster, checked shirt, string tie, and hat, she was Old West incarnate. Although she had to shed this second skin to go to nursery school — where girls wore skirts — in her mind, and to her family, she was always “Hoss, Sheriff of Marshal City.”

Occasionally people seemed to doubt she really was a cowboy, and she needed reassurance. “Are you sure cowboys wear dresses to shul?” she asked her mother. But her mother was a worthy buddy who never once let the illusion dim.

“Of course,” she replied. “Hands up! You’re under a dress!”

Except for the nervous babysitter who kept her from taking her rocking horse out to the backyard for a gallop, life had always gone smoothly for the little cowboy.

Until the day the snake came.

She was leading a posse, chasing a horse rustler out of town, when she saw it. Her rocking horse bucked and she slid off, running. “Rattler!” she thought. Although her mother assured her that it was just a garden snake and quite harmless, the little cowboy wouldn’t set foot out of the house, leaving her trusty steed to deal a death blow to the creature.

Shamed by her cowardice, the little cowboy never came out again.

Next time she went out to the yard, she was a soldier.

Over the Wall
Sara Glaz

M

y childhood backyard in a secular Southern California neighborhood was like everyone else’s. It had nicely cut bushes, a few flower pots, a doghouse, and six-foot-tall cinderblock walls that separated us from our neighbors.

It was forbidden, in terms of social etiquette, and deemed overly intrusive, to look over the concrete wall into your neighbor’s neatly groomed private backyard. If Worst-Case-Scenario happened and our ball flew over the wall (assuming there wasn’t a crash or a smash), the proper course of action was to knock on the neighbor’s front door, politely explain your misdeed, and hope that the ball would be thrown back over the wall in a timely fashion.

In the secular world, we all kept to ourselves, which meant each family, and oftentimes, each person, had to fend for themselves. If backyards are extensions of a home, then while a home was off-limits to the public, the backyard was, too.

In college, I decided to change my life’s course. In addition to seeing the truth in Yiddishkeit, I was pulled to the frum community’s closeness to one another, in such stark contrast to my childhood.

Eventually, I married and moved to a frum New York neighborhood. Aside from the bitter cold of the winter, one of the things I wasn’t expecting was the backyards. It was shocking to see open backyards, lacking any sort of boundary. Or, if boundaries existed, they were sporadic bushes or four-foot-tall chain fences. Where were the walls? I wondered. Where was the privacy?

As I became better acquainted with the frum community, both on the receiving and giving end of chesed, I realized that these backyards told of something more than the way children play. Tzedakah is given freely and the have-nots are supported by the haves. Gemachs and nonprofits, like Hatzolah, are created to simply help other Jews. Tehillim is said for family members and strangers alike. Homes are opened for Shabbos guests.

In place of the cinderblock walls of my youth, my backyard today is enclosed by a four-foot-tall chain-link fence. Everyone can see in and we can see out. And instead of ruing the lack of privacy, I’ve learned to like it. While it’s still a challenge for me to move away from the secular mentality of “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours,” I realize that it’s far more meaningful to be a part of a family that extends beyond my four walls.

Honeysuckle Truce
Shoshana Itzkowitz

M

y big brother and I fought constantly. My mother says now that it wasn’t all the time, but I tell you it was. The strange part was that it was only in the house. Odd, but true. Inside, my brother made my life miserable, but some of my best memories are of doing things with him — outdoors.

Something about our big backyard must have had a soothing effect on everyone’s moods and temperaments. We spent lots of time out there, and I don’t remember any fighting. I assume we girls must have argued over whose turn it was to get the swings, but I have no recollection of it. Outside was … sacred.

It was big-brother-who-made-me-suffer-indoors who discovered the huge honeysuckle bush in the back-left corner of the yard and taught us how to pluck them and suck out the honey. It never dawned on us to find out if they were poisonous or to worry about sucking the stuff: If he said we could, we did. (Outside he was my hero, remember?)

And the smell … ah, the smell! It’s been 20 years since I’ve been to the old backyard, but the sweet, summery scent of honeysuckles will forever bring me back there.

There were times we had to forgo our honeysuckles; sometimes the tenants downstairs took over that side of the yard and we couldn’t play there. Instead, we amused ourselves on the other side of the big yard, where an ugly bush shed strange, dry, leafy things that we separated at the top and stuck onto our noses, Pinocchio-style, or we’d play ball in what we called “the side yard.”

But as soon as we’d see the tenants’ car drive away, it was Destination: Honeysuckle Bush, where time would stand still and we’d pluck away until there were none left within child’s arm’s reach. Even after we pulled out every honeysuckle, though, the scent lingered and kept us under its spell, casting a magically peaceful aura over us until the tenants’ car would pull up and we’d go running inside… where the fighting would resume.

These days, my brother and I are great friends, even indoors. I now watch my kids romp around my own backyard, and wonder how it’s possible for them to fight out there.

I need to plant a honeysuckle bush.

Family Tree
Rochel Grunewald

M

y grandparents planted a family in their backyard.

When my mother arrived, a precious first, they planted an apple tree. Sweetness, simplicity, new life to adorn a garden that had never yet borne fruit.

For my aunt, a year later, it was pears. New texture, crunch, and the soft flavor of tomorrow.

Daughter number three brought sweet cherries, juice bursting, staining cheeks and tongues red, the color of joy.

For their fourth, it was a fig tree, uniqueness, wrinkled skin, perfect taste.

The one and only son had plums: rich purple vibrancy, plump and luscious.

Their garden, once an ocean of empty lawn with a lone, towering oak in the center, became a flowering forest of fruit, ripening in the dawn of spring, shedding overripe fruit at the onset of frosty winter.

As the family grew, so did the garden: my uncle insisted that Family Winegarten simply must plant grapevines; tomatoes budded and grew; flowers, trees, fruit, life bloomed in the sheltered backyard just meters away from a six-lane highway.

When I was young and wide-eyed from the feel of grass beneath my feet, my cousins and I would find ourselves drawn to this haven, with its rope swing that waved wildly at the foot of the oak; the swing set at the end of the garden; the tree house and its dangling rope ladder that ripped eons ago “when our parents were young.” (I climbed it just once, before more rungs rotted and disintegrated and the rope ladder was banned from little hands and feet.)

When the sun slanted through glass paneling and trees swayed in tandem, we would slide the floor-to-ceiling doors open, reveling in the expanse of freedom. We’d run across the grass, race for the swings, hide in the bushes, climb low stone walls around the flowerbeds. We would laugh and whoop and tumble and fight and play, always sheltered by the five trees, boughs budding with fruit.

And now, just as suddenly as yesterday’s children became our parents, it is no longer me, but the younger cousins who prance and tumble and play, and another generation is poised to grow in this wondrous garden of love.

And all around, leaves whisper a tale of roots spread far, far below; branches stretch heavenwards, sweet fruits blossom and grow and gently fall to earth, and the sun smiles down on a family tree, in full, beautiful bloom.

Out the Door
Esther Kurtz

T

here’s a joke that you can cut a Brooklyn lawn with toenail clippers — my parents’ backyard didn’t even need that. But we had a stoop.

The steps were low and wide, with space for at least four adults, six kids for sure. We played Mother May I and hopscotch and watermelon, and just schmoozed on the front steps. Someone on the block had a shed and we hung out there. We stayed outside until our mothers poked their heads out of upstairs windows and yelled, “You should have been inside 20 minutes ago!” and still we dawdled and played and laughed and enjoyed our childhood.

At some point during my engagement I referred to my backyard. “Backyard?” my then-chassan asked. “What backyard?”

I gestured vaguely to the back — didn’t he know what a backyard was? He guffawed. “You call that a backyard?! Wait till you see my parents’ backyard in Chicago. That’s a backyard! This…” He trailed off, no words were needed to convey his contempt.

And then I went to Chicago, to see the home where my husband grew up, meet the people surrounding his life, and, of course, to see the backyard. It was big. Probably three times the length of the house.

“This is a backyard,” my chassan said. There was grass that needed a lawn mower to maintain. There was a spacious deck, a swing set, and a shed. There was a basketball hoop and a plastic kiddie pool on the side waiting for summer. All surrounded by a red picket fence.

My chassan and his many brothers played football and baseball and basketball in their backyard. While my brothers had their baseballs confiscated by grumpy neighbors who didn’t like it when the balls landed in their “yard.”

Today I live in Passaic, and there’s a piece of grass in the front to sit on and a rocky patch of dirt in the back. The driveway goes all the way to the back so we put up a kiddie basketball hoop for the kids to play. It’s not picturesque; there’s an urban edge that lingers in the dust that clings to my boys’ knees. But my kids play basketball and kickball and free for all, and they run and whoop and dawdle when I stick my head out the back door and yell, “You should have been inside 20 minutes ago!”

Backyards, I’ve realized, are not about space. They’re about freedom. So bring on the concrete, the luscious grass, or dusty dirt. All my kids need is a door to walk out of.

Beneath the Surface
Marcia Meth

A

fountain of foliage shooting skyward, then cascading gracefully toward earth — the weeping willow on my front lawn.

But what evil lurks below?

My daughter was turning 18 and graduating high school. I wanted to get her something special. Home Depot’s garden section had the perfect gift: a tiny weeping willow.

It reminded me of our drives to North Carolina for our annual family reunion — Leah would squeal in delight whenever she spotted a cluster of lovely weeping willows circling a small lake.

The ideal gift for my nature-loving girl — a living thing she could watch grow. The low price sealed the deal. I presented it to Leah that evening. She was ecstatic. “Mommy, it’s the best gift ever!”

That night, I researched planting and caring for a weeping willow.

Uh-oh.

Willow roots love water. Great alongside lakes. Not so much around houses. Their tentacles can strangle water pipes, invade sewer systems, crack open walkways, break through foundations.

What to do? Break my girl’s heart? Or break my house?

I decided to let her plant the tree — as far as possible from our water system, our foundation, and our recently paved walkway.

Next morning, she slept in. School had just ended, and her summer job hadn’t started yet. Leaving for work, I postponed our planting discussion. But when I returned… there on my lawn, close to my house, beside my walkway, was that beautiful water-sucking weed! In her excitement, Leah had invited two friends to a planting party.

Crestfallen when learning the situation, she helped me research how to move a willow. We learned that a transplanted willow had only a 50–50 chance of survival. To give the monster a fighting chance, I hired a professional gardener.

So much for “inexpensive”!

After the transplant, we waited in suspense to see whether Beast Baby would survive. Leah rooted for it. Secretly, I hoped it would wither, leaving my home alone. But the hearty little thing flourished.

And flourished, and flourished, and flourished.

Four years later, it towers magnificently over my lawn, shields our windows from prying eyes, provides a breathtaking view from within. Sweet Leah believes it’s as beautiful below ground as above; suspicious me fears subterranean malevolence.

We’re taught to be dan l’chaf zechus to our fellow humans. I wonder… does it apply to trees?

Backyard Refuge
Avigail Rabinowitz

H

it the pavement running was no idiom. We had 60 seconds left to get down the block and around the corner and over to Olive Street and be on that school bus before it pulled away. Sneakers squealing and sparks flying as we rounded the corner, we both stopped short: the last bit of yellow could be seen in the distance, driving off without two of its junior passengers.

Shoshana and I missed the bus to school.

Again.

We knew well that our mother would be far from amused; she had no car and we lived six miles from school. Worse, I had missed the bus yesterday and Shoshana the day before that. Desperation spawned creativity, and we came up with a brilliant plan. We’d just hide in the backyard till our siblings came home at 4:30.

So began our beautiful spring day in the yard.

We parked in a corner spot, out of sight of the back bedroom windows, and sat in the tall, plush grass. We davened and schmoozed and told stories. Yes, a brilliant plan indeed. I think it was mine.

Surely, it must have been time for recess already, so we ate our snacks and looked longingly at the swing set, so inviting — though obviously off-limits to fugitives.

We passed the time until surely it was lunchtime in school, and moved over to a shady spot nearer to the bushes and trees, unpacked our lunches and ate those too, enjoying the beautiful weather and the heady scent of the millions of yellow and white honeysuckles perfuming the air.

We emptied our knapsacks, searching for any unfinished homework, but we were losing steam. Fast. It didn’t help that by that point I really needed indoor plumbing.

Finally we could stand it no longer; we’d go berserk if we had to stay out any longer. With heads hanging, we slowly ascended the front steps and rang the doorbell, sealing our fates.

I will never forget my mother’s astounded expression when she opened the door and gasped, “What in the world are you two doing here at 11:00 in the morning?!”

A Tree Grows in Vienna
Rifka Junger

I

t’s been a long day at the office. My head is bursting with calculations and projections. My ears are pounding from the incessant hum of traffic and chatter of conversation on the street.

As I rush to pick up my son from school, as we trudge home, both of us tired and hungry, I’m looking forward to one thing: the moment I’m greeted by the lush greenery of my garden, the moment I finally fall onto my garden chair, take off my shoes, and rub my toes into the soft grass. My son and I sip iced-tea luxuriously, enjoying each other’s company as we rehash the day. Ah, this is true bliss.

I close my eyes, and suddenly realize I’m no longer plagued by the sounds, stresses, and worries that were polluting my mind, ears, and heart; all that’s left is a soft rustle of leaves in the summer breeze, the birds’ sweet symphony.

Fifteen years ago, I had almost given up finding an apartment in this coveted district, home to most of Vienna’s Jewish community. And then I learned about this house. Before I even saw the interior, I discovered the garden. A garden! In the middle of Vienna!

No matter that the apartment itself was shabby and rundown, badly in need of renovation. Here was my paradise: 35 square feet of grass under the shade of an apple tree that blooms an intense fuchsia each spring.

These days, this small patch of earth hosts lively barbecues for friends and raucous soccer games — between my son and me. But my favorite times are those simple moments: iced-tea with my son after a hectic day or a solitary coffee in the quiet of morning before the buzz of the day. As I take in the calm around me, the guileless beauty, I can’t help but feel embraced by nature, my spirit rejuvenated. And I silently say, “Thank You, Hashem, for this gift.”

Sunrays on Rooftops
Faigy Schonfeld

W

hen I was 14, we moved to a new house. One of the great discoveries we made was the Brooklyn equivalent of a backyard: a roof. In the warmer months, our roof became the setting for all sorts of fun.

There were spur-of-the-moment picnics, elaborately planned birthday barbecues with friends, teasing, and laughter, slightly charred hot dogs, smoky cutlets, and coleslaw out of foil pans. We’d listen to music on the bench swing, the sunset leaking through the surrounding homes. Long and glorious Shabbos afternoons, sisters, sugary ices, and intense discussions.

The crowning glory of our roof was the huge trampoline. With school out in the heady days before Pesach, the roof finally sunny and inviting after months of early dusk and bitter winds, the trampoline became my place of refuge.

My baby brother has Down syndrome. In addition to his strong will, he’s bigger and stronger than anyone I know; there weren’t many outings I’d dare take with him. But I could take him up to the roof. So we went, every day.

My mother was grateful that I was keeping him occupied, and I got to escape Pesach cleaning while still feeling virtuous. We jumped together on the trampoline for a few minutes, laughing and happy, giddy with the new summer breeze in our hair. Then we’d lie down on the smooth, sun-warmed surface, close our eyes, and feel the sun on our cheeks, listen to the faraway noise of traffic and mayhem below as if it were coming from an alternate universe. Maybe it did. For those few moments, we were in a bubble all our own.

For me, it was a little pocket of love I shared with my favorite brother, as we serenaded the spring together.

Besting the Dream
R.C. Steif

T

he advertised address is a bit further than we’d like, yet the advertised price is too tempting to disregard.

Before the agent opens the front door, I notice the expanse of green grass. I immediately envision myself sprawled lazily on a lawn chair, watching my kids frolic in open space that isn’t black asphalt. Not quite the dream home of my youth: no kidney-shaped pool out back, no circular driveway enclosed by neat hedges, and no rock garden or flowerbeds bursting with color. Still, it’s sort of a middle ground between my dream home and what could realistically be ours.

I think and think some more. Ultimately, I decide I could never make peace with living there. “I’ll be afraid every evening when you leave for Maariv,” I tell my husband. “The homes are so far apart!” I’m not talking about acres of farmland, rather several hundred feet. But I’ve become so accustomed to people living directly above, to the right and to the left of me, that I cannot contemplate living in a private home.

We settle on a rental in the center of town and in the center of the hullabaloo. An old home with additions on the front, side, and back, this once-upon-a-time-private-home-turned-building houses ten families.

The yard? Black asphalt edged by overgrown grass and cracked concrete (maybe an old patio?). The space is littered with abandoned riding toys, scrap wood, dozens of empty snack bags, mismatched lawn chairs, shredded circulars, and local newspapers. Then there’s the traffic. Though the front of our home sits on a dead end, the street bordering the back is labeled “highway” on the local map.

Every once in a while, when visiting my parents, I slide into a deck chair and close my eyes. The quiet is so tangible and exclusive that it doesn’t take much to imagine I’m in the yard of my dream home. I can almost smell the flowers, hear the tinkle of that waterfall…

Yet I don’t regret the choice. I’m surrounded by comforts of a different kind: an abundance of frum playmates for my children; neighbors to schmooze with, borrow from, lend to, and share simchahs. Best of all, no one yells at my kids for getting into their flowerbed or dropping a snack bag. It’s all part of the scenery — and way more likeable than my dream home ever could be.

Or perhaps, I’m slowly realizing, this is my dream home.

 

(Excerpted from Family First Issue 548)