When we moved into this house 19 years ago, the yard was in pristine condition. The former owner — her name was Marie — lived here for 30 years.
The older couple (now long gone) who lived next door told us that Marie spent most of her time outside working on the yard because the house was crowded with three generations of her family, plus several elderly tenants that Marie took care of.
It’s no wonder Marie took solace in the yard. The inside of the house was dark, cluttered, and neglected. We didn’t love the house, but it was large and cheap and had potential. There was room for my husband’s drum studio and, with a bit of hard work, up to four bedrooms for our growing family.
I was eight months pregnant with the baby who would die almost 16 years to the day that we moved in.
Marie had planted flowering bushes randomly around the yard, all of them covered with sturdy, unyielding thorns. My husband, haunted by the image of our baby toddling into one of those bushes, took it upon himself to remove them one by one. That was pretty much the extent of the yard work we accomplished that first year, beyond a few feeble attempts to mow. The baby arrived on May 16th, about a month after we moved in. Both of us were exhausted.
The lawn had looked wonderful during the first few weeks of spring, but quickly became overgrown. Our property is just under half an acre. It may not seem that large, but when you are tired, unused to owning your own home, and trying to figure out how to take care of a new baby, yard work becomes a low priority task.
We bought our first lawn mower soon after we moved in (we’re now on our third) and barely used it. I have a vague memory of two neighborhood kids offering to mow the overgrown yard and giving up halfway into the task, defeated by the many obstacles (mostly thorns) that made their job nearly impossible. We paid them $20 anyway.
Over the years, my husband and I got better at keeping the yard in some semblance of order, but it was not a job that either of us loved and it was never a priority. There was too much to be done inside the house.
The years tumbled by and I had another baby (she is now 16 years old). My husband planted a garden. We got chickens and they kept the L-shaped piece of property at the back of our house free from grass for a few years. But it wasn’t enough. The edges of the property needed far more attention that we could spare.
My house is surrounded by wooded hills and low, nameless mountains that host many native and invasive plants, trees, and vines. All these growing things eventually made their way into our yard — dandelions, clover, crabgrass and chickweed, clematis, honeysuckle, porcelain berry and Oriental bittersweet.
We mowed or chopped it down where it was easiest to reach — the center of the yard, ignoring how it crowded the edges of the property, growing thick and tangled. Beating back the growth requires constant vigilance and we never seemed to have the time.
We bought a weed wacker that we used for a summer, then abandoned to our rotting shed. We bought gardening tools (with the best of intentions), then inevitably left them outside to rust after a few uses. The girls grew and grew, helping us tend to the messy garden, but only minimally. We wrestled the growth back each year at the start of spring, only to become weary and overwhelmed by July.
In the summer of 2012, my older daughter, Ana, got sick. She was diagnosed with cancer in August and spent six weeks in the hospital. We were barely home, traveling to and from the hospital, which was about an hour away. Our yard was so overgrown that it became a barrier between us and our neighbors, obscuring our little family behind a tangle of growth not unlike the forest surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Ana turned eleven that year.
Like the weeds and vines that choked the pachysandra and hibiscus plants that flourished on our property, Ana’s cancer would never completely retreat. It kept growing and spreading, despite the increasingly invasive surgeries she endured in an attempt to beat it back from her lungs, abdomen and pelvis.
We’d gotten rid of the chickens after she started chemotherapy because they were an infection risk. The weeds and grass quickly returned to that little L-shaped spot behind the house. Vines began to overtake the periphery of the yard at that point too.
I wouldn’t understand the full extent of the problem until eight years later when COVID-19 forced me to spend more time in my yard than I had since the early years of motherhood.
In those earliest of years, my girls had decorated the driveway with chalk, played on the ancient metal swing set that came with the house, and stood in the center of the lawn (now free of thorny bushes), and played badminton and tetherball.
I’d like to think we paid more attention to keeping the entire yard neat and trimmed, but there were always pockets of wildness that we ignored, particularly the stretch of yard that curved downhill to the right of the house. It’s a difficult area to mow because it dips steeply down toward the street and is covered with an assortment of bushes and trees that needed (but never received) diligent pruning.
We did our best with the resources and energy we had. Life was a struggle before cancer came along. We never had enough money, but we managed to pay all our bills and keep the girls well fed and happy.
After cancer, normalcy collapsed. We turned our collective energy inward, focused on staying strong for Ana and on keeping her alive. We did this for nearly five years until, just two days before the spring equinox in March 2017, Ana died from her disease.
The yard went, quite literally, to seed.
I don’t know when the ash trees at the edge of my property died. They were infected by an invasive beetle called the emerald ash borer, most likely around the time that Ana got sick. Trees infected by emerald ash borers typically die within two to four years after infestation.
The dead ash trees stand forty feet tall (at least), with sagging vine-wrapped limbs that are an eyesore, and a danger, to anyone strolling past them.
I sat beneath the dead ash trees the summer after Ana died and stared at the overgrown yard without seeing it, hoping a branch would fall on me so that my grief and pain would finally be over. Beyond that, I didn’t think about those trees. That was 2017, a few years before the pandemic forced everyone to stay inside.
This year the local trails I love to visit have become packed with people itching to leave their homes after two full months of isolation. It’s nerve wracking to try and stay six feet away from strangers on a narrow trail. So, for the first time since Ana died, I’m spending lots of time in my overgrown, neglected yard along with my younger daughter, Emily.
A couple of weeks ago, Emily pointed out how messy the edges of the yard had become. I guess I’d gotten so used to unseeing the growth, it had become invisible to me. As we sat outside and sipped iced tea, Emily pointed out how our huge patch of raspberry brambles was literally taking over everything and growing into the street. Then, she asked about the dead ash trees, drawing my attention to several limbs that had fallen and to the large sheets of bark peeling from their trunks like snakeskin.
That’s when I realized I now had the time to address the (impossibly overgrown) corners of the yard. I had no idea where to even begin. It was overwhelming. And yet, with Emily’s help and persistence, I did begin.
I started by mowing the section of yard that my husband had long-ago cleared away for the kids — the part that had contained all those scary thorn bushes and was now the only spot free from weeds and vines. Then I did something I haven’t done in years. I walked along the curb, where an ancient chain link fence divides my property from the street.
It was eye opening and discouraging — weeds, vines and small trees grew in and around the fence. It was ugly to look at, but it was also sad. It felt, somehow, as if my grief and exhaustion had become a physical thing. Tangles of impossible growth, clusters of weeds four and five feet tall, and misshapen trees forced themselves through the openings in the fence.
We had inadvertently created a barrier dividing our property from the rest of the neighborhood. The ash trees were the culmination of our neglect — stark, dead, and dangerous. They are currently being overrun by a relentless tangle of vines that, if left unchecked, will eventually pull the trees down on top of us with a determination that’s nothing short of alarming.
Last week I bought two pairs of thick leather work gloves — one each for me and Emily — and dug out the rusty gardening tools. I carried the tools, gloves, and a pitcher of ice water to the backyard and set to work with Emily. We have spent about fifteen hours cutting, chopping, ripping, and digging out black raspberry and wine berry vines coated with thorns. Beneath the vines we discovered yet more vines, plus weeds, small trees, and broken bits of long-abandoned gardening tools.
We’ve spent hours doing this back-breaking work, walked tens of thousands of steps (according to my Fitbit), and we’ve barely scratched the surface. And yet, each evening as we sit — exhausted and content — amidst the newly surfaced landscape of our yard, the weight of the grief I always carry becomes slightly lighter.
Our biggest achievement so far is that we’ve managed to uncover the trunks of those dead ash trees. Prior to our yard excavation, it had been impossible to see how dangerous they were. Now, we can see how bad the problem is, so we called a tree guy who gave us an estimate to take them both down within the next six weeks.
There is still much to rip out and remove, but there is also a stretch of yard that runs along the front of the house that has been cleared. Our neighbors, many of whom have been strolling past the house (because what else is there to do?) can see into our yard again.
They are new neighbors and old and I can’t help wondering what they think of all the work we’re doing. I imagine them turning to each other and saying, “It’s about time those people cleaned up their yard. What took them so long, anyway?”
I want them to know that I’m sorry for my messy yard. I never meant for it to get that bad. I couldn’t see it for the disaster it had become because the only thing I had the strength to focus on was keeping my daughter alive. Then, I simply did not have the energy to care. When Ana died, I stopped trying to tame the yard and hoped, for a time, that it would simply swallow me whole.
As my grief shifts to something new — something gentler and more open — I am finally ready to clear out the unchecked growth that has kept us separate from our neighbors for over half a decade.
It’s ironic. Just as the larger world is forced into lockdown, I’m ready to come out of my house and clear away the rubbish. I’m ready to let the light back in.
If there’s an overgrown yard in your neighborhood, I hope you understand that the owners could be struggling. I hope you spare a moment of compassion for the family that lives within the chaos of unchecked weeds, vines, and trees that need trimming because there may be a lot more going on in that house than you realize.