March 26th, 2011


The Back Yards of Your Life

When I was still a kid growing up in the apartment in Maksim Gorki Street in Novi Sad, we were up a flight of stairs in a relatively low-rise building on a leafy avenue. Our apartment, the right-hand side door on teh first landing, spanned the width of the edifice, with one side (our living room, and the room we made into into a dining room ) looking grandly out into the main street and the bedroom, with a small balcony, facing out back.

"Out back" was a kind of long driveway with a bunch of garages - many of them lean-to types pretty much built by the owners - lining the narrow ribbon of potholed drive to the one side. They stopped a little way from our balcony - partly because my parents had vetoed the building of any further garages in the row on the grounds that such a construction would basically function as an invitation to step over our balcoony and into our bedroom, so there was a gap between us and the first garage in the row.

The building next door to us on the left, as you looked from the street, was another and very similar apartment block, with a fenced off and fairly similar "back yard" - but the building to our right was the vast and modernistically ugly edifice that housed the provincial court house. That building actually faced the cross street which turned at the corner, so the side next to our own block was just the narrow side view. But that meant that the courhouse's entire length was actually at right angles to us, facing away, and behind it, alongside our driveway with the serried ranks of garages, was their back yard. It was technically fenced off but the fence was... shall we say... porous. These were the days when security was not such a bugbear as it is today. Nobody really cared. The courthouse's back yard was an unkempt wilderness filled with weeds (which occasionally produced pretty enough flowers, which I'd wander in there and pick) and I used to go sneaking in there to collect the mosaic tiles.

The courthouse building was tiled in tiny red and white ceramic-type tiles. There were always some lying about on the ground there in the hummocky, mole-ridden, weed-infested back yard, stared at by dozens and dozens of blind office windows for those not lucky or important enough to be given "street-facing" offices which meant prestige and status. These back rooms were the abode of under-secretaries, and clerks, and scurrying ranks of worker-ants; if they ever cared enough to lift their heads and look out of those dirty windows they might have seen the little girl from the apartment house next door scavenging their back yard for red and white tiles.

The guy who lived on the top floor of our apartment building owned a hunting dog - a brown and white pointer of some sort, a trained hunter who would assume the classic "point" position if sicced on a quarry and was trained for scent following. This was long before my family opened its doors to any pets of our own but I was devoted to animals even then, especially dogs, and this particular beast was a friend of mine (and so was his owner). Every so often he would take the dog out to the back yard of the court house, would have me hold out a handkerchief of mine for the dog to sniff, and would then have me hide it somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the courthouse - and would then release the dog to find it. It was a matter of huge joy to me to watch this animal work that weedy jungle of a yard, running with purpose, sniffing, seeking, and finally always finding the handkerchief quarry that I had hidden there for it.

Such was the back yard of my young girlhood. Not much to speak of, but it was something I learned to find joy in.

There were others, as I grew up.

There was the house in Zambia which backed onto a swathe of virgin savannah grassland with tall golden grasses; in there we watched families sit and patiently wait to club down the scurrying field mice which would be destined for their dinner, and from there we inherited snakes and voles which came migrating into our own large and barely civilized fenced-off back yard.

There was the house in Swaziland, cut from a hillside, the part of it right next to the house a flat expanse of red clay and then rising into a red cliff-face from which the flat area had been torn from and on top of that a bunch of avocado trees which were technically ours but which were not within our yard fence and which, in season, bore a laughing crop of local black kids who swarmed them for the avocados and hung from the branches themselves, giggling and chattering, as though the trees had somehow conjured them into existence. That cliff face became a waterfall during storms, and well I remember one particular night-tempest which had left the house without power and me on duty, with a wadge of bundled up newspapers and old towels and my arms up to the elbows in muddy freezing water, trying to stem a flood of water pouring underneath out kitchen door and fountaining unstoppably from that super-saturated red clay wall behind the house which could simply hold no more water and was generously sharing the overflow with us.

There was the back yard in Cape Town, with its bougainvillea and its swimming pool and the dusty honeysuckle hanging off the brick pillar on the side porch. The back yard where we buried - and left behind - our first and beloved German Shepherd, behind a bank of flowers where she liked to lie and which, after her death and her burial in that back corner of the yard, never ever bloomed again.

We didn't really have a back yard in New Zealand, not on a corner plot which technically faced "forward" in two directions - but then I moved to America, and first there was the back yard in Florida, with its live oaks and its black garden snakes which terrifed me and the bird feeder with the painted buntings and the pretty blue jays and the office in the back where I wrote "Jin Shei", and after that there was the Pacific Northwest steeply sloped back yard of wild cedar woods with a tangled undergrowth of blackberries and passing deer who have come to know the piece of earth just beyond my study as a "safe place" where they can leave their babies while they go on unfathomable deer errands and where apples, conveniently quartered so that the deer's small mouth can fit around it, sometimes inexplicably rain from the heavens - or at least from the upstairs deck.

I'm a product of all those back yards. They're microcosms of my world. They are the building blocks of my life. They all taught me things, and made me sad, and made me happy, and made me me. They have all left their shadows in my soul.

We all have them, the back yards of our memories, the places where we did our growing up and began our discovery of the world.

What was YOUR back yard when you were young?...