On fences, children, and letting go

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 20, 2015.

Twenty years ago, when my wife, Deb, and I had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard in East Greenwich, a line from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” came to me:

“Good fences make good neighbors.

But our fence was less about neighbors than about children. We had two boys, ages 4 and 2, and a new baby was on the way. With our house smack-dab in the middle of town, half a block from busy Main Street, we needed to make sure our kids didn’t wander off.

Good fences make good barricades.

Our lot sits on a hill, and the backyard slopes precipitously. That didn’t seem to concern the burly, good-natured guys who did the installation. They navigated the tricky terrain masterfully and, after two days, the cedar fence gathered our boys in a fragrant embrace.

Over the ensuing years, within the fence’s confines, our children ran through sprinklers and built snow forts; chased our dog and tried to dig to China; tossed Wiffle balls and played manhunt.

At the same time, northeasters slammed the fence’s flat boards and squirrels gnawed on the arbor above the gate. When frost heaves left four or five sections askew, I had to call the installers back to re-set the posts.

As our kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door in their daily comings and goings. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, drama rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. Somehow, seemingly overnight, the fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

Good thing.

The first break came when Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island in 2011. I watched from my kitchen window as one of the fence’s back sections listed awkwardly, a wooden sail in the storm.

I rushed down with clothesline rope to tether the flailing section back to its post. Irene scoffed at me with a whoosh of wind and rain. Afraid the next gust would hurtle the rack of wood onto a neighbor’s car, I laid the section flat on the ground, hefted six cobblestones onto it, and prayed.

The cobblestones (or my prayers) did the job. But after the storm, the fence wobbled badly on either side of the missing section. The entire back run needed to be replaced, the fence guys told me; most of the posts and crosspieces were rotted. When I heard the price — and thought of pending college tuition payments — I asked the guys to simply take the battered back run away.

Miraculously, the fence’s side runs held on — until Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Two sections on the northern edge of the yard fell, and those that remained upright were now more vulnerable than ever. Storms no longer needed a name to pose a threat. The mere mention of heavy winds had me peering outside with trepidation.

One blustery Saturday morning, I looked out my kitchen window and, again, noticed a gap in the fence — this time, a section was breaking ranks on the southern property line. I grabbed my drill and headed out to the yard. I pulled the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s would reunite them.

But when I leaned into my churning drill, it pushed right through the mushy wood. The brace and the screw fell to the ground, and the fence resumed its tilting.

As I searched for the screw in the leaves below, I thought of my children. My older son was in Los Angeles, chasing pop music dreams. His brother was on a train to New York, trying to kick-start his own path in the recording industry. And my daughter was asleep upstairs, perhaps dreaming of a college campus far away from the backyard of her childhood. In less than a year, she would leave, too.

A different line from Frost’s poem spoke to me now:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

I abandoned my mending and went back inside.

4 Comments

Great writing…as always!! Fabulous metaphor…the need for the fence and than no longer needed as life and children move on…fantastic!!

    Thanks, Ernie. Always appreciate hearing from you after my pieces are published. And I know you know a thing or two about children and fences and letting go – something else that we now have in common!

Love it, John. Goodness, you brought me to our days before the fence when we “penned” our toddlers if play pens, now never seen, understandably. I too love life’s metaphor, but what will you write when they return?

    Good question, Ed. My boys live in LA now, and my daughter is at school in Syracuse. Wouldn’t be surprised if she heads west, too, after graduation. When the boys do return – for Christmas or a much-needed dose of RI summer – it is a treat for all of us. So perhaps I will write about that at some point. As always, thanks for reading and writing. Looking forward to your next ProJo column.

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