The backyard of my childhood home in Atlanta, like most of those in the neighborhood, is narrow but very deep. It has two distinct sections, which my friends and I differentiated in this way: the area just behind the house was the back; the more remote area was the way back. Sometimes, for emphasis, we called it the way, way back. The same terminology, of course, referred to the seating arrangements in those old station wagons from the 60s and 70s (including our 1965 Dodge Polara, with its rear-facing seat, as well as the one appearing in a current movie of the same name.)
We bought our house from a family with four children who played in every inch of that yard, as the numerous toy soldiers, cap guns, pen knives and dolls with mold-encrusted eyes, found in the unlikeliest places, attest. In 1968, when we moved in, the landscaping left much to be desired. There were a few azaleas and some dogwoods in a wide-open sea of scraggly weeds and spots of bare earth. We didn’t devote much time or thought to real gardening; we had more than enough to keep us busy with the ongoing renovation of the house and the rehabilitation of the extremely patchy front lawn. (See Morningside Begins its Comeback, July 2012.) But a mere four decades plus later, in the absence of an army of hard-charging children, nature has worked its own special magic. Behind the house now lies a sort of enchanted urban jungle.
It’s not that we stood by and did nothing. In that case the house would now be completely hidden by a tangled Sleeping Beauty thicket. Daddy has always been out there clipping and pulling weeds. Since his retirement, he has spent the greater portion of his waking hours combating the constant, determined creeping of the vigorous, semi-tropical plant life that thrives immediately outside the walls. If it’s daylight, Daddy is pruning, pulling ivy, gathering fallen sticks, clearing away the ongoing accumulation of natural debris. Nearest the house, in the back, Daddy’s efforts are keeping nature’s tentacles in check, to some degree. Atop the steps leading from the rock garden, there is a central area that to this day remains recognizable as an actual yard.
Further back, however, the battle has long since been lost. The way back luxuriates in a state of benign neglect. With my every summer visit, it’s substantially lusher, more enclosed, more overgrown. Every year, the vines have thickened, reached higher, delved deeper. Nature’s resolve to have its own way is everywhere in evidence.
When we bought the house, the way back was especially barren, strewn with pine straw and sprouting a few weeds. It was here that Daddy set up my red and green metal swing set. Brand shiny new when I was two, he assembled it behind the small house in suburban Lexington where I was born. While our family bounced around from Kentucky to North Carolina during Daddy’s graduate school years, the swing set found a temporary home beside the chicken lot at my grandparents’ farm. Once we settled in Atlanta, it settled there with us. In the theatrical production of my childhood that runs in my head, that old swing set is a crucial backdrop, an essential set piece. It boasted none of the fancy components seen in today’s typically elaborate play sets–no castle, fort, or climbing wall–just a two-person glider, a couple of swings, a trapeze and a slide. It was nothing special, but it was where my friends and I gathered. Located, as it was, in the remoteness of the way, way back, it was where we met to play, to pretend, to talk, to argue, to make plans. It was our place. A kids’ place.
Not all memories the swing set conjures are idyllic ones. Several years during elementary school I struggled with the mind-gripping demons we now refer to neatly as OCD. It didn’t have a name back then. Thanks to the patience and understanding of my mother, who had experienced a similar near-insanity as a child, I managed not to fall apart completely. Mama sat at my bedside every night, when I’d tell her each worry, and she’d tell me not to worry. A general, all-encompassing “Don’t worry” meant nothing. I needed her to respond to each anxiety individually. It was exhausting for both of us, but she never complained. During the school day, when I was occupied, I was OK. I don’t think any of my buddies knew I was crazy. In the late afternoons, if I didn’t have the company of friends, the beasties roared back, preparing for the free-for-all of night. They often demanded my fealty in the isolation of the way back. I can see myself running yet one more time around the swing set, zipping joylessly down the slide again and again, touching the rusty spot on the top bar just once more. I have to do it. No, I didn’t touch it exactly right. I have to do it again. I’m a weary, restless, ten year old nervous wreck. Fortunately for me, that time passed. I either outgrew the demons, or they got bored and went on to torment another, more defenseless child, one without as compassionate a mother.
As a high schooler, having learned a few moves on the rickety uneven parallel bars during gym class, I used the high bar of the swing set to practice. With the picnic bench positioned below, I could propel myself onto the bar and execute back hip circles. I shudder to think how close I must have come, repeatedly, to flying off and breaking my back, my neck, or worse.
During my college years, there were fewer hours to be whiled away in the way back, and nature asserted itself in earnest. The wooden seats of the glider rotted and disappeared. The slide weathered to a warm, rust red. A few vines, wisteria and grape, managed toe holds and began to wind their way up, across and over. One hard plastic swing was anchored in place by a vine that braided itself delicately along the length of the chain. Year by year, each element became more firmly rooted, more tightly entwined.
The vines might have held the swing set up for decades to come, had not a nearby giant tulip poplar been tossed onto the slide during a lightning storm. While one side is crumpled like a broken toy, the other still stands, held fast in the candy cane clasp of a massive wisteria vine. The glider is locked in place, as well, vine-trapped. Vinca, ivy, Virginia creeper and mahonia flourish along the ground. Unchecked plant growth closes in from every direction. Going on right now, and for the forseeable future, at least, it’s a wild foliage riot in the way, way back. In the midst of it all, my old swing set remains, ever more adorned, yet ever more fragile, a monument to simultaneous decay and growth. A monument to life, and its circle.