They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfereWhen the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the hazeOf a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn daysIs a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.
I first heard James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” when my tenth grade geometry teacher read it to the class. Ms. Conard wore polyester dresses that looked home sewn without the benefit of a pattern, boxy garments that covered her solid torso. Often placing a fist on the top of her desk as she rose from her chair, Ms. Conard ambled as she walked to the chalkboard and looking back I suspect her hips were arthritic. Her straw-like hair was kept in what could only be described as a bowl cut and possibly trimmed with the same shears she used to cut the fabric for her dresses. Her face bore the deep lines of someone who spent more time out in the elements than indoors teaching math to sleepy teens, but the eyes in that weathered head were bright and generally merry. I suspect, though never bothered to ask, she was also a farmer. Each Monday, she wrote a new quote across the top of her blackboard and at the beginning of every class, she read us a poem. Hers was the only math class I can say I ever enjoyed and not just for the poetry; I left her classroom with the unfamiliar feeling that I had mastered a math lesson.
As autumn stops flirting and settles in, cool weather no longer restricted to the evenings, I begin pulling out the children’s coats and hats, checking the collection of gloves and mittens to see how many pairs we have, and I think of Riley’s autumn-praising poem. In the last stanza, he says if the angels came down from heaven looking for a place to stay, he’d want to board them in the fall, when the land is color-steeped and the farm work nearly finished.
Here in Northeast Ohio, the rolling forested land affords vistas of autumn color as the trees prepare to shed their leaves. Next to the Waldorf school my younger children attend is a grove filled with maple trees. Each spring, galvanized buckets hang from taps on the maples’ trunks as the neighboring farmer collects and sugars the sap. In the fall, the leaves on sugary maples become a yellow so bright they seem illuminated from within. In 2007, the fall weather gradually cooled allowing the leaves to slowly turn. Few of the leaves had yet fallen from the trees when, in late October, the first hard frost hit. After I dropped the kids at the school, my dogs followed me on a stroll through the maple grove in the early morning light. The frost had severed the hold of the leaves, which were descending in a brilliant shower of color. But what struck me was the loud clattering noise the frozen leaves made as they knocked into each other on their way to the ground. It sounded like the snapping beaks of a large flock of geese.
I think of autumn as my favorite time of year. But I forget two things. The first is with a household of children returning to school, September often plagues us with the first, if not the worst, round of head colds of the school year. It’s particularly rampant when the youngest children have yet to master proper hand washing techniques and are content smearing the mucous “elevens” onto their sleeves. A friend once told me that if babies and toddlers were international spies, all it would take to get them to talk would be to wave a tissue and threaten a nose wiping.
The other thing I forget is the panicked urgency that comes over me as I wake each morning with a new and longer list of things to do for fall cleaning. I suspect the notion of spring cleaning arose from the days when nearly all homes were heated with wood. When warm weather arrived, everything would be pulled out and wiped down. I’ve cleaned homes that are heated with wood stoves and each load of burning lumber adds layers of ash, which float and fall upon, behind and under all furnishings. We have a gas, forced air furnace, which is pretty clean. When spring arrives, I don’t want to clean the inside of my house, I want to get dirty out in the gardens. Fall, to me, means bringing things in, including the people where we will be on top of each other for six or more months.
Working Like Ants
Until this week, the weather has been mild and we have stayed outside, putting the gardens to bed for the winter while thinking ahead to spring, bringing in the plants, such as canna lilies and lantanas, that cannot handle the hard freeze of winter. Out front, we have a large cement urn on axis with the front door. For dramatic height, I planted a red cardinal plant, which grew over four feet tall, in the middle surrounded by white New Guinea impatiens. The red cardinal is a perennial and likes wet soil, so last weekend we relocated it next to the small pond Max and Jules put in the back yard this summer (Jules had wanted to give the feathered creatures he feeds a substantial watering hole). The pond is in a garden bed next to our back porch, and for months we have been emptying that bed of hostas and day lilies so that next summer we can fill it with plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
Last night, we harvested the last of my state fair zinnias, which were a spectacular success. On the border between the front lawn and the walkway where the cement urn is located, these tall and vibrant asteraceaes (my favorite flower family, which includes daisies, sunflowers, chrysanthemums and, yes, asters) were colorful beacons for many months. Great cutting flowers, I filled the house with cheerful bouquets of zinnias the past few months. In the night, the first hard frost of the season fell and with it went my zinnias. I have been thinking that next year I might plant pink and white cleomes where the zinnias were this year and put the zinnias in the new butterfly garden. Max originally wanted the cleomes too, but after this summer’s crackerjack crop, he is lobbying for a return of the state fair zinnias right were they were this year.
Dreams Do Come True
In May of 1996, I bought a Martha Stewart Living magazine with an article on lilacs listing varieties that bloom at different times of the year from early May through late July. Hoping I’d one day have a home with the right space and light to create such a collection of the fragrant flowering bushes, I have carted that magazine with me through at least four moves and over nearly two decades. After Max and the boys removed English ivy and anemic looking japonica bushes out front, we planted a collection of lilacs tall and short, purple, pink and variegated. And yes, blooming at different times of the spring and summer, including a Boomerang Lilac, which overachieves by blooming not only in the spring, but also in late summer. Underneath the lilacs Max planted three flats of sweet woodruff, which is a ground cover that will not snake up and choke the lilacs the way the English ivy would nor will it try to grow on the house.
“It’s not fair,” Claude complained good-naturedly when we moved into this house the summer before his senior year in high school, “I only get to live here for one year!”
My big boys all like looking at houses. I’ve pulled the car over for open houses that looked interesting, whether or not we were in the market for a home, for as long as they all can remember. In my head lived an image of the home I wanted to raise my children in: a big, but not too big, old house with lots of land, a stream and a barn. Other than not having a stream and a bit more stately than a farm-house, this house is as close to that image as I have ever found. Instead of a barn, we have a large outbuilding that includes a garage just for bikes, sleds and other outdoor toys.
This is the only house my two youngest children know and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only one they’ll ever need to know. The rooms are sunny, the spaces flow and the doors are solid wood with brass handles. Built in 1940, each nail was hammered by a man’s arm, not a hydraulic tool. We have plenty of space, but not so much that we are ever far from each other. One of the quirks of the house is the central staircase acts like an acoustic chimney and everything sounds nearby. If asked, “Where are you?” the answer cannot be “Here,” because it is impossible to determine where “here” is. When sought out, we have all learned to identify the room we are standing in. Whether the answer is a second floor room or the basement, it all sounds the same.
For the first year, it felt as though we were living in a cool house that belonged to someone else. Busy wallpaper covered the kitchen walls, while several rooms and the hallways on the first and second floors were painted a pre-faded yellow. Old wall-to-wall carpeting was in three bedrooms, smelling of time and dry rot and, because it was white, never quite clean-looking.
Flanking the windows on the front of the house were shutters painted the taupe-green color of chicken poo. I hate that color, I’d think every time I pulled in the driveway but painting them was not at the top of our project list. Then late this summer one of the larger shutters next to a ground floor window was damaged in a storm. Max pulled it off and we realized that it covered decorative brickwork. “I don’t think these shutters are original, Holly,” said Max, “Let’s get the ladder and pull them all off!” When finished, we walked to the front sidewalk to assess the transformation. The house reminded me of a woman who scrubs off overzealously applied cosmetics, revealing a fresh face underneath. We posted the shutters on Craig’s List at $10 each and sold every single one. Three of the four purchasers bought them to make headboards for their beds, leading me to believe instructions for such a project had been posted on Pinterest. What fortunate timing!
Formal Versus Fruitful
The previous owners had professionally landscaped the yard and I’m glad they did because I would never put that kind of money into a yard, yet we enjoy many of the results. The backyard was graded and filled with healthy topsoil. An underground watering system was installed in all the flowerbeds and the back lawn, not unlike a golf course. However, the plants in the flowerbeds seemed more appropriate for landscaping an office building off an interstate highway, shade loving hostas and rhododendrons withering in hours of full sun. And while the dogwood trees in the front and the rows of sweetbay magnolias in the back add a stately appearance to the yards, there was no whimsy to be found. Long before Max and I became lovers, I told him how all my gardens, no matter what I do, become riotous, a furzy mélanges with all the plants growing into one another, in part because birds also love asteraceaes, the seeds of which they eat and distribute in the most organic way. But the birds can’t be blamed for all the clutter in my gardens. Rocks that the boys have collected on our journeys are stacked in tottering obelisks near every back door I’ve had since I’ve had boys who slip rocks in their pockets. Broken bits of brightly colored crockery are wedged in the soil next to flowering plants as though working their way to the surface at some archaeological site.
After describing it all to the man I did not know would one day be my partner, he sent me a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “A Strange New Cottage in Berkley,” so perfect to send to me, of all people, for so many reasons, but how could he know all those reasons when he didn’t know me well at all? And yet it seems, in hindsight, that was the moment when the tiniest of seeds was planted; growing eventually into this abundant, furzy life we now have together.
For two years, we have made incremental progress, indoors and out, and now, just in the past two months, we both feel like this is becoming our home, surrounded by our gardens, reflecting not just what we like, but who we are. Brighter colors on the walls, wilder plantings in the yard. Yes, we still have too much stuff, but we continue to sell, donate and discard our possessions large and small. The basement no longer has goat paths through stacked boxes of books and the back garage no longer looks like a furniture store.
We found a house, we have made it home.