The Suburban Home Companion

I grew up in a middle class neighborhood of colonial and Cape Cod-style houses, riding the bus to school and my Huffy bicycle in the summer. Without a helmet. It was the eighties in suburbia.

Four months ago I began a new morning walk ritual, heading out at 7:00 a.m. for a loop around the familiar web of cul-de-sacs.

My eyes started to open up to a place I’ve known my whole life and yet had never taken the time to notice.

One morning as I crossed the street to turn down our block, I passed a neglected corner of someone’s yard and in the mass of overgrowth were branches bursting with berries. A step closer revealed them to be wild blackberries, or black caps as they’re called around here.

I looked to my left and right down the street and then tiptoed, okay trespassed, four feet onto the property.

I walked home with a handful, and rinsed and stirred them into my oatmeal turning it a red hue. They were tender, seedy and mildly sweet. While eating breakfast, I felt the thrill of discovery…and of not getting caught.

On my next walk I brought a bag. After looking around again, and then up at the windows only a couple yards away, I went to work.

Thanks to my hopefully-oblivious neighbors, I picked nearly two pounds of thIMG_8410e dark purple lovelies and an hour later into a pot they went along with lemon zest and sugar.

The results are impressive if I do say so myself. And I do say so nearly every time I take the small jar out of the fridge. My first-ever jam!

Some of it has appeared in a peanut butter sandwich, but you and I can be real. It’s too good not to immediately savor my success by the spoonful.

While this was happening in the kitchen, my dad decided to dig up the lawn.

Yes friends, our 3/4 acre yard has now become a community garden.

Word spread quickly. How could you not notice?

One afternoon while he was out planting, our next-door neighbor yelled over to him that we should open a farm stand. Without missing a beat, Dad replied, “Good idea. I’ll make the lemonade.”

Then came a phone call from another neighbor who had been given rhubarb plants at church, did we have room for them? Fifteen minutes later I met her outside with a shovel.

More than half of the garden is being planted by a family friend who was once a farmer in Jamaica before moving to the U.S. He’s been so kind to us through the years that my dad offered to give him our land since he doesn’t have any of his own. In the process, it has become a great excuse for Dad to return to his gardening roots, too. When a mysterious bag of green leaves and stalks appeared on the kitchen counter the other day, Google informed me that we are growing callaloo.

We also have several varieties of leaf and head lettuce along with two types of kale, collard greens, tiny spinach and an array of herbs — basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, marjoram, and lemon thyme. The squash and tomato plants are just kicking into gear.

I’ve given some vegetables away, and make time daily to survey what new little growth has popped out of the ground. Yesterday I walked outside at noon, and by 1:00 p.m. was eating a salad composed entirely of what I found. I went back at 7:00 p.m. to gather ingredients for a smoothie in the morning.

I guess this was kind of meant to happen. You see, I have always held a place in my heart for houseplants, greeting new leaves on my umbrella tree, Adelaide, with a happy hello. In college I decorated our dorm-room ficus with garland at Christmas. Because everyone buckles a small tree into the passenger seat next to them on their drive to school, right? His name was Herbie the Love Fig.

Now I’IMG_8465m learning to love garden-variety plants. When the first bulbs of kohlrabi formed at the bottom of the four plants my dad bought on a whim not sure what they were, I could not contain my delight.

And baby eggplants! I mean come on, aren’t these the cutest???

In the ol’ neighborhood, kids still ride by on their bikes without helmets. Someone’s dog runs at full speed through our yard once a day. Time is slower. I didn’t imagine what would happen when I slowed down with it.

Join us for more tales from Lake Wobegon, or rather Barkley Road.

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Zufriedenheit – Happiness:
Coming from happy – enjoying
pleasure and contentment.
Related words: joy, gladness,
feeling fortunate or prosperous.

The above was the definition offered in Markus Zusak’s 2005 YA gem, The Book Thief. German phrases are peppered throughout, some defined and others left for you to draw your own conclusions from the context.

[A special thank you to our neighbor, Sandy. The book mysteriously showed up on our dining room table one day. Three chapters in, I realized why. It’s a compelling read about innocence, accordions and love in Germany during the Holocaust as told by a kind, omniscient grim reaper.]

Something about zufriedenheit captivated when I saw it on the page. I was sitting on the back porch of my parents’ house at the time, enjoying the late afternoon shade. I liked the word so much I said it out loud twice more, looking up at the trees and smiling. Try it.

A month later I came back to it when I felt the full extent of my own zufriedenheit. 

Let me tell you about the chickens.

Living back in upstate New York, there are either more farms than ever before or I just never noticed them when I last lived here as a teenager. Of course given how often I was at the mall back then, maybe that’s the answer.

The other day I visited a new friend at her family’s farm. She also moved home recently, and is navigating what it’s like being up close and personal with loved ones as an adult. A kindred spirit. I met her in the garden, and not long after her cat strolled by wrapping her tail around my left calf as she passed.

It felt so peaceful there. Their pond, a field of wildflowers for the new bee hive, and a pretty farmhouse that must have a rich history judging by the worn white siding alone.

When we arrived at the bird coop with an assortment of chickens, geese, and ducks, several hens approached and waited patiently at our feet. They seemed to be greeting us in the way pets often sidle up to new visitors hoping for a belly rub or a scrap of food. I looked at my friend, curious, as she bent down in front of one of the hens.

“They don’t like to be petted, but sometimes I do anyway,” she grinned as she ran her hand along its silky maroon and black feathers.

If chickens can do the same full body shake that dogs do when their fur is matted, then that’s what happened next. The hen looked conflicted, clearly liking the attention since she continued to hover nearby and yet not knowing what to do about it.

I reached my hand down several times, but raised myself up again when I saw the chickens tense. If they didn’t want to be touched then I wasn’t going to force it, but I liked their presence a lot. I guess I was conflicted, too.

More birds strutted over and soon surrounded us in a semicircle. Just in case anything good was about to happen, they wanted to be part of it.

As my friend and I started to walk the dirt driveway toward my Civic parked by the old horse stable, all of them followed behind without a sound.

Her father met us near the barn.

“That never happens,” he said, nodding at the birds. “It’s something about you.”

I looked away, trying to hide my glee.

I’m sure it had everything to do with my friend feeding them out of her hand a few days prior, but I couldn’t help hoping her father was right. You see, I have a not-so-secret wish to be Snow White. The part about little birds landing on the end of her fingers as she sang to them. I would also like to be able to sing.

I left a couple minutes later, the birds dispersing as I said goodbye to them and hugged my friend.

As I drove away, I was reminded of a photo of my dad as a kid on his family’s farm.

This is what zufriedenheit looks like.





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