Averyell A. Kessler
I grew up in distant days when the only electronic devices in our home were kitchen appliances, table lamps, and a Philco floor model radio. In a wild moment of splurge, Daddy bought a second radio for our kitchen windowsill so Mama could listen to The Romance of Helen Trent and Backstage Wife. We considered ourselves lucky. I did not have the advantages of endless video games, the latest Apple tablet, or access to facetime or streaming Netflix. Instead, I had a backyard.
During the golden days of summer, I dashed out every morning to play with my best friend Martha. She lived on St. Mary Street, catty corner to our house on Laurel. Our backyards were connected through a narrow alley behind her garage. We called it the open, and it was the gateway to all our fun. Together, we swung high on a homemade swing my grandfather created from castoff pipes, a length of chain, and a plywood seat. We pretended to be circus acrobats hanging by our knees from a matching trapeze. There was a seesaw too, but we called it a teeter-totter. If the day was especially hot, Mama allowed us to blow up the plastic swimming pool, fill it with icy hose water, and spend the day in soggy bathing suits. We never noticed the blistering heat or the constant attack of a fireball sun. We were having too much fun. Lunch was an irritating diversion and naps were out of the question. Our only enemies were bumblebees, chiggers, and a poison ivy patch near the back fence.
In the afternoon, when the air was stiff and heat reached a boiling point, we’d sit in the grass searching for an elusive four-leaf clover, capturing roly polys, or making clover bracelets from our harvest. Sometimes, we brought our dolls outside and set up a tea party or made parade floats from shoeboxes and tissue paper then pulled them around the driveway in a Radio Flyer. Occasionally, our doll parties were interrupted by Martha’s brother Jim who jumped from behind the hedges, caps gun blazing, as he yelled “hands up.” To this day, I recall the sharp ping, ping of the caps and the caustic aroma of white smoke erupting from his “gun.” He liked cops and robbers, but we weren’t allowed to play.
My favorite day was wash day when our clothes were pinned on the line to dry. Mama had two long clothes lines stretching across the yard, one partially concealed by Daddy’s tomato plants and a Jack and the Beanstalk style grape vine. That was for spotty tablecloths, dust rags, socks and unmentionables. The one in front was reserved for sheets, pillow cases, and bath towels. Martha and I considered wash day an instant hide and seek festival and raced through the damp sheets like out of control mustangs. I wish I could still summon up the fresh smell of just washed sheets dripping on the line. No matter what anyone says, it’s not duplicated in a box of dryer sheets or a spray can of air freshener. Never will be.
On rainy days, Martha and I camped out on her living room rug, playing Chinese Checkers, reading Little Lulu, and dancing to her father’s collection of RCA Victor 78’s. We toyed with the idea of borrowing her brother’s chemistry set but settled for mixing vinegar and baking soda. We taught ourselves how to make grape Kool Aid as well as a PBJ on white bread. We played Cooties, cut out paper dolls, and built towers from Tinker Toys. We adored jacks but learned that leaving one behind on a hardwood floor was not good and caused barefoot injury. Same rule applies to pick up sticks.
Best of all, I remember spending the night in Martha’s big double bed, in her small back bedroom. After hours of whispers and giggles, we fell asleep to rhythm of chirping crickets and the sound of bugs thumping against the window screen. Her attic fan kept the bedroom cool, as cool as it could be on a steamy summer night, by fluttering the curtains apart and drawing in soft night air. The house was completely dark as we waited for the day to follow and floated into dreams.
In the morning, I’d drift awake to the low, moaning horn of a passing freight train. As I watched the sky turn bright, robins and jays began their noisy sunrise riot, swooping and diving to the bird feeder in Martha’s backyard. Sleep was impossible. Soon the aroma of frying bacon filled the house. Martha and I rose and stretched, then scampered into the kitchen for biscuits and honey or my favorite, cinnamon toast. If we were lucky, someone might take us to Seale-Lily for an ice cream cone or to the playground at Riverside Park. If we were extremely lucky, the zoo was a possibility. If not, we always had the backyard.