When I was young, my family lived with my grandmother for a time in Washington, D.C. , in one of the old neighborhoods with houses of colonial brick and Italianate stucco. Grandmother’s house was a colonial, with perfect symmetry: a window on each side of the front door, three windows across the top, and a little pediment decorating the top of the entry. The house was in a neighborhood with a dizzying array of similarly designed houses, on blocks and blocks of numbered and alphabetically-named streets. I memorized the address – as every city child should do – and can recite it to this day.
It was the first time I’d lived in a city, and I was fascinated with alleys. They were like secret passageways into people’s secret lives, the lives hidden behind the houses’ dignified front doors. Is it any wonder I became a fiction writer? I walked down alleys all over the neighborhood, spying on how people lived. And their gardens were spectacular. D.C. gardens in summer overflowed with crape myrtle, blue hydrangea, phlox, daylilies. I would compare them to my grandmother’s garden, which took up a good portion of city lot next to her house. She had roses, peonies, coral bells, spirea, and a giant magnolia tree, which we understood to be the biggest star magnolia in the city.
By the time I was in high school, we had moved to the suburbs. It was too shady there for a garden, but Dad tried to grow tomatoes in a sunny patch, and put impatiens in shady spots, and I scouted Mayapples and morel mushrooms in the deep shade on the hill. Sometimes, when I had the family car at night, I would drive down grandmother’s alley and look at the house and gardens as if they had some secret to tell me about the real meaning of my life. One night, after my grandmother had sold the house and moved away, I saw that the gardens in the side lot had been replaced by an ugly modern condo. I was devastated. Those gardens! Gone.
After college, I lived in houses and apartments all over D.C., and when there was a yard, I planted roses or impatiens, depending on the shade factor. I would leave them behind and move on, sometimes driving by to see if perennials still grew there years later.
Last year, my sister and I drove to “grandmother’s house” – she had long since died – and gazed at the place with our overlay of memory. This time, we went to the front door. It turned out that my sister also drove by the old house to check on it from time to time. But now the big poplar tree to the left had been cut down. The windowsills and pediment were peeling, in need of paint and repair. One upper window was just a little ajar, a dark shadow in the opening.
We spoke to the man who lived next door. He said the man who lived there was a little reclusive, but he thought he would welcome our visit. We stared at the peeling paint and the shadow behind the window ajar. We decided to let it stay a mystery.
Note: This essay was written in response to one of my prompts on Kitchen Table Writers Facebook Summer Camp, inspired by The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett. To have access to the writing prompts and more essays, join us at KitchenTableWriters.