Eating Local for Urban Families. Gluten-free and Dairy-free, too!

Thursday, October 4

Fred's Roses

My husband rolls his eyes when I tell people this: I can read the personality of a house. Sometimes. If I really want to. Some houses, I don’t want to read. There is too much sadness, anxiety or a sense of resignation. We once lived in a new apartment. It was a like a baby, excited to see what we’d do next. My uncle once lived in a house that hated children.

Our house has always been a house of possibilities. Of invention. Of dedication and perseverance and optimism. Sometimes I think this house has made us who we are now (I’ve essentially lived here my entire adult life). We loved this house from the moment we walked in the door, almost exactly ten years ago. True, we were living in a broken-down, worn-out and totally apathetic 93-year-old townhouse with the most maddening, pothead liar for a landlord. Just about any dwelling would have looked better.

But that’s not true. We did look at other houses, after this one (it was the first). And we just loved this house. It’s a 1912 Craftsman bungalow, wide, with a full front porch, and four dormers. I especially loved the kitchen (it seemed huge then, before kids). It had solid bones, a proud character, and we could afford it (we actually rented it for almost a year, then bought it). And we wanted out of that crazy townhouse.


It wasn’t until we’d been here a few months that I started to think about Fred. We pieced together, from stories we were told, that he probably grew up in this house, and lived most of his adult life here. We don’t know much else about him, except that he was frugal and self-reliant, handy and committed. We could see it in the things he left behind.

I started to read this house, once we’d settled in and arranged our ratty towels in the linen closet, organized our cheap cookware in the white melamine Home Depot cabinets our landlord installed. Fred had left a deep impression here, from the jar lids nailed to the rafters in the basement (presumably to secure containers that held small items, such as screws and nails, up out of the way) to the old hybrid roses that lined the driveway. And when I read this house I knew it was ready to be ours. Fred was leaving, knowing that his home was in the care of people who truly loved it and would care for it.

I don’t remember when I really began to think about the garden. I do remember, after living here a year or two, Aaron said something about taking over all the yard work knowing I was bored by the whole idea. He was tired of the unwelcoming juniper in the front, the suffocating hedge in the back, the mishmash of immortal calendula and random, forgotten perennials in the driveway beds. I’d done some of the basic maintenance here and there, and I’d worked very hard at taking out the blackberries at the behest of the mortgage company; they could attract pests, you know. (Incidentally, this company also made us exterminate a bumble bee nest under the porch, which I will always regret, much the same way I wish we’d just tended down the brambles.)

Later we learned that Fred was out practically every day tending those blackberries. “To keep active,” the lady next door explained. Now I know he probably enjoyed a bumper crop of berries, too. I’ll always wonder what he did with them. Eat them? Give them away? Did he bake? Make jam?

Gardening to distraction

Though my container garden at the townhouse threatened to take down the whole dilapidated balcony with the weight of clay pots, I was uninterested in the garden here. Until, that is, about 2001, after we’d lived here about four years, when the economy was in shambles and no one in this town, who worked in marketing or design at least, could find a job. We were chronically under-employed and, for a few months, lived on the equity in this house. At the end of the summer I took over the struggling web design company Aaron started and he got a job in web analytics. Then September 11th happened and things went for horrible to, well, a blur.

Landscaping the yard was our escape. That summer we pulled out the juniper. We put in a basalt rock wall and planted native shrubs. We weeded. We fertilized. We shoveled dirt, a lot of dirt. We thought about anything but our derailed careers and our shrinking bank account. Don’t ask me how we paid for all this gardening. Or all the cocktails we consumed.

Still, as far as maintenance went, I mostly ignored the roses. Because I could. They were old and healthy and unfussy. They simply asked for water, a lot of water. And I didn’t mind if they were a little blackspotty, or if the aphids sucked the life out of their buds. I just pulled off their fungus-infested appendages and stuffed these colorful long-stemmed beauties in vases I set around my house and enjoyed their charm.

A garden designer told me that I should break them up and move them. “You’ll enjoy them more,” she said. I was shocked. As a native of the City of Roses I always knew roses in rows. I would not move them. And what if they didn’t survive the trauma? This is when I knew I loved these rose bushes, all twelve of them.

Clearing out the old

Earlier this year, when I started to crave space for growing food, we consulted a garden designer, Laura Baughman. She advised us to take out three of the rose bushes, the peace roses close to the carport. I knew she was right, though I felt horribly guilty at sacrificing these old bushes for this new project. A few weekends ago we decided we would take them out as part of our big three-day yard maintenance marathon.

That Sunday morning I heard a commotion on my porch.

“Anybody home?” It was Neighbor Joe, delivering more plums. He’d never stopped by here before; I always met him while visiting my friend, who lives next door to him. We chatted a while. I promised him jam. He looked over the railing of my porch toward the driveway. “Do you still have those roses?” he asked.

“Yes, they’re still there,” I said. In a few hours I wouldn’t be able to answer this question the same way.

“That old man, you know, he used to be out here every day taking care of those roses,” Joe told me. “He was real old, you know, about 90.” (Joe is 89.) “Then he’d invite me in for a drink…” He laughed his dirty-old-man laugh.

I hadn’t thought about Fred in a long time. Little by little his imprint on this house has faded and our family’s has settled in. Our modern ways, or at least our sense of aesthetics, necessitate making substantial changes to this house. He probably wouldn't recognize the kitchen with it's shiny steel appliances. The (sort of make-shift) office where I write this, and where my home-based business is headquartered, was once his basement workshop. Soon we’ll put in a master suit in the semi-finished attic. And we've brought back the old things he tried to do away with. The year Clara was born we re-installed the period moldings around the doors and windows, bringing back the “old” look that Fred no doubt tried to remove sometime in the 60s in favor of something modern.

But that Fred. With Joe’s out-of-nowhere comment, he just had to make sure I knew how much he loved his roses. I didn’t tell Joe that I planned to take out three bushes, the peace roses, that day. When the time came I watched Aaron unceremoniously stick a spade under each plant and scoop it out, practically without effort, which surprised me. Did they know their time was up? It happened so fast I didn't even get a picture. I'm kind of glad. It's makes it easier to move on.

The blessing
But I made sure Fred knew I’d gotten the message, just by speaking this story. And I told him the other roses were staying and that I intended to grow food in this newly cleared bed. I imagine he’d grown tomatoes and zucchini and lettuce somewhere on this lot or perhaps in the once empty lot next door where the 1950s cottage now sits.

At the end of the day I think I got another little sign from him. Clara appeared at the front door dangling a bunch of blackberries in her fingers. Aaron took out a fence and all the brambles around it and gave this to her to bring to me. These were the progeny of Fred’s blackberries at the peak of their season. We went to the kitchen where Iris was perched in her highchair and the three of us ate them all in about thirty seconds flat.

“Mmm, they’re sweet,” Clara said. “And this one is sour.”

A little snack, courtesy of Fred. I think he approves of our new garden plans.


Aaron Gray said...

Sheesh, this story made me cry. And I was there, unceremoniously tearing out the roses.

By the way...I do roll my eyes, but I also know you're right.

LeLo said...

This is such a lovely, lovely post. I've wondered about the families and people who've lived in our 1910 house too, and with our recent renovation, found lots of neat stuff in the walls about them. I love that you're such tuned into Fred. :)

Angelina said...

I don't know very many people who feel about houses the way I do. I am envious of the period of your house, I like really vintage homes. Mine is a late fifties ranch house. The one really nice thing about it is that we bought it from the people who had it built, so there was only one owner before us. The previous owners are quite old and still live near by. The old guy gardened and his roses, though ones I would not have chosen for myself, often make me feel connected to him. I was tempted to replace them all with ones that had scent but couldn't do it.

Anyway, I loved hearing about your house and it's slow transformation.