Front Lawn/Back Yard Stories

Susan Ribner

The Baby Carriage

1940

Huge rangy bushes squeeze the front stairs of our house on Liberty Street. The hedge across the front yard and the fir trees by the house explode with life. In this old photo, it’s much more lush than I remember. The biggest surprise is the gathering on the lawn: adults, children, objects fill this space that in my memory was empty, grassy, open—my playground as a child.

My father’s side of the family is visiting from Rhode Island. Here are the relatives I will think of in my childhood as the poorer, more immigrant part of our family, and the less favored. There is some estrangement with my father, and they don’t visit often, but I never ask why.

My pretty young mother, her short, dark hair parted in the middle, sits on a tiny bench, her slender legs clasped together under her skirt, her chin cupped deeply in her left hand, her mouth hidden. She listens intently, it seems, to my aunt Martha, who sits next to her, talking.

In my mother’s face, I can see the young Margo, my sister. I see my own young face as well. These two women, absorbed in talk, see nothing else.

Grandma Esther, my father’s mother, stands a few yards away, her feet rooted in the grass. She has that puffy, Eastern-European-housedress kind of body with the heavy breasts sloping down to the waist, although on this day she wears a fancy dress with sparkles in it. Her hair is short and curly, much as mine will be in later years.

In her right hand, Grandma clutches her purse even though she must have been here for a while since my mother and Martha have settled in for this serious talk. What does it mean, this purse she doesn’t need on a front lawn in suburban Connecticut? A sign of the formality of this get-together, a dressy occasion since she doesn’t visit often?  Or has she simply come to see her son, the doctor, who’s made good? 

Grandma Esther talks to a dapper fellow in a nifty suit and tie. A cigarette dangles from his lips and his white hat tilts rakishly, masking his face. Could this be Grandpa David, the small wiry man I remember for his bushy mustache and light-blue eyes? He seemed rather shy and unfashionable to me, unlikely to be wearing this classy hat. Yet this must be he.

My grandparents lean toward each other, speaking, I imagine, in their heavily-accented English or more likely their native language (was it Russian? Polish? Yiddish?) And they, too, notice nothing else.

There on the front lawn is my sister, Margo, a small child at the time, in her light cotton dress and black shoes, her body rigid, tense, her gaze focused on the interior of the dark baby carriage parked on the lawn, its back to the camera. Ah! I realize now, if the carriage isn’t empty, then the baby inside is me—born in May when Margo was almost four. Certainly this is why the relatives have come! To greet me—the baby.

No grown-up in the photo sees that all Margo cares about on this day on the lawn, is me, that her face is as serious as our mother’s, as intent, more intent, that her arm is plunged deep into the carriage where the baby (surely) lies. No one sees except our two-year-old cousin Bobby, who stands by the carriage, an interested witness.

Does my older sister fluff the blanket around me, or does she press it a little too long over my lips? Do her fingers tickle my tender cheeks or slip just a bit into my eyes?

 

Running up Daddy’s Legs

1943

Late afternoons, I sit on the front lawn, waiting for Daddy. I clip dresses on my paper dolls or crayon in my coloring book until his car turns into the driveway. Here he is, home from doctoring, sliding out of his small blue car, its edges rounded like a cartoon. My adored daddy—his necktie open, his dark curly hair receding even then. He is perfect.

I fly to him in one of the smocked dresses my mother fancies, my fluffy hair bouncing, my heart full to its edges. I shout, “Daddy!”

“Suzabelle!” he says, dropping his doctor’s bag in the grass and spreading his arms, his hands—these immaculate doctor’s hands, the nails neatly clipped—immaculate—a word he’ll use often in later years, when anything or anyone praised for this quality is admired. Now these hands welcome and say, “Come. I will hold you. You can trust me.”

And I do. Grabbing his hands, I run up his legs, flip backwards in a somersault, and land safely on my feet.

It is our trick. It is our kiss.

Margo used to do this with Daddy, but I remember the day she plunged out the front door and huffed up to us, waiting her turn. She stood there, shoulders hunched, her long dark hair shadowing her face.     

Daddy shook his head. “Too big, Margo. I’m sorry. I just can’t do this with you anymore.”

I am the small one, the lucky one.

 

I Write a Book

1945

The screen door swings open, and I appear, clutching a load of objects in my small arms. I stand for a few seconds at the top of the cement steps, squinting in the summer sun. A sweet breeze twists the pinafore around my skinny legs. Across Liberty Street, my sister and Sally O’Hara are running circles around Sally’s house, yelling for some reason.

I am going to write a book.

Onto the newly mown grass I waddle under my heavy cargo, then set out my goods, more seriously than at a tea party: the slips of white paper I’ve taken off my father’s desk; the thick red book pulled at random from my mother’s bookcase; and my cherished 5th birthday present—my toy typewriter. My palms glide over its shiny surface, my fingers tracing the brightly-colored circle of alphabet letters.

I know how to work it. I’ve practiced twisting the center dial until the arrow points to a letter. Then I press hard on the dial, and the typewriter clunks and prints on the paper.

I will copy and type every word in this grown-up book.

Robins bounce around the yard. Blue jays racket in the trees. Margo and Sally have yelped across to this side of the street and now leap-frog back and forth over the fire hydrant on the other side of the hedge.

I am copying, letter by letter, twisting the miracle dial, hitting the clunker with my small fists.

Margo’s voice booms into the yard. “What are you doing, Susie?” She peeks over the hedge, her cat-like eyes tilting upward, crinkling in her devil way.

“I’m busy,” I say, hoping she leaves. “Writing a book.”

“That’s ridiculous, Susie!” Margo says, snorting pig noises through her nose as she and Sally run off down Liberty Street.

I won’t listen to her. I type and I type, and the book appears on my paper, the letters crooked and smudged. It doesn’t look good, but I keep typing. 

Time goes on forever. The sun drops behind the trees, and I sit in shadows. My wrists hurt. The mosquitoes bite my legs and arms. And my tired eyes scan the messy letters in their long, uneven lines—all two of them.

Slowly, slowly, I take in my folly—the huge gap between my grand scheme and my small ability. My chest and head fill with a blunt, gray sense of failure. I understand. I will never be able to write a book.

My mother appears on the front steps, wiping her hands on her apron. She whistles for Margo and me the familiar “Daddy will be home soon, so come get ready for dinner” tune.

I scrape the grass off my legs, scratch my bites, then gather up my machine, the book, the sad papers, and carry it all across the grass.

“What have you been doing?” my mother asks, chipper.

I want to tell her that I tried to write a book and couldn’t. And now I want to cry.  But I sense she doesn’t want bad news. “Oh, nothing,” I say.  
                       

Killing Margo

1946

If I push aside the white organdy curtains in the window of my parents’ upstairs bedroom, I can view the business of Liberty Street: chunky Sammy Watson, an older boy, my sister’s age, riding his new Schwinn bike rather gracefully up and down the street; Claudia Paley, chugging by on foot with her rosy cheeks and two broken arms in casts, caused by her fall off the highway overpass at the end of our block, just built through the swamp where my friends and I play pirates and catch snakes; or Mrs. O’Hara, Sally’s mother, a nice person for a Catholic (says my father), perched on her front steps, calling in her five kids for dinner; or perhaps, my father, himself, coming home from his office, driving his blue Ford slowly down Liberty Street. 

From this window I can see our whole front lawn, twice as big as our neighbors’—the green stretch where my friends and I cartwheel into exhaustion; the long hedge, a great hide-and-seek place at dusk; the row of fir trees close in front of our pointy, white house, forming a dark tunnel where we convene in secret, or so we imagine, to trade cards, tell ghost stories, play nurse and doctor in love. And the high white wooden fence with the trellis in the middle, separating the front yard from the back, where the apple and pear trees are, and the cherry tree.

There is, indeed, much to be seen from my parents’ bedroom. But why are Margo and I alone here this day in the small room with the green-satin-covered bed? And what exactly is it my sister is watching, bending her body way out of the window, her long hair falling forward on her face, blocking her peripheral vision, tempting me so?

I am small. And though I realize I’m not physically up to the task, the desire has arrived unexpectedly and seductively, thrilling me with possibility.

To be fair, I do hesitate a second or two, just as I did a few weeks before, when I stood on our front lawn with my best friend Janice, determined to throw my whole body into a back flip even though I had no idea how to do it. There was a second’s understanding that this plan was simply nuts—that I might break my neck. And then I mashed my bare feet in the grass, glanced over my shoulder to see where I was headed, and closed my eyes. “Be tough, Susie,” I thought.Don’t chicken out.” Life wouldn’t be OK if I didn’t have courage.

Janice stared, her marble-green eyes wide.

“Here I go,” I said, and flung myself backwards, trusting that imagining a back flip would make it happen. Instead, I landed in a twisted heap, my neck contorted in pain, my mouth open in dirt.

But I had tried. And I wasn’t dead.

So it is now with Margo. I do hesitate a second. “Killing is horrible,” I think. “Really, really bad.” And then at once the counter-thought:  “I might just get away with it.”

On my toes, I push aside the fluffy curtains, grab the raised window, and crash it down on my sister.

I’m not sure where it lands—on Margo’s back, probably. She yanks herself out of the window, screeching, “Susie, are you crazy? What did you do that for?” and runs off yelling, “Mommy! Mommy!”

I was hoping my act would cut off Margo’s head, or at a minimum kill her. But I was too small and weak.

And she is not dead.

 

The Bad Witches Dream

1946

On the front lawn this summer morning, Margo and I sprawl belly down. She slaps her braids back over her shoulders to clear her view, then teaches me how to pull a blade of grass so gently from its tiny pocket inside the mother blade that it slides out whole with its tender white root at the base still intact—the part we love to chew. She shows me again and again until I get it, and the green blade doesn’t snap apart in my fumbly fingers. While I practice, Margo talks her latest wisdom.

“Susie,” she says. “Last night I had that terrible dream, where the bad witches chase me around the halls at school and trap me in Miss Gershon’s room. I got so scared. But this time I yelled, ‘Mommy’ three times real loud, and I woke up!”

Turning on her side, she faces me, her cat eyes stern, her forehead wrinkled. She points a teacherly finger. “Remember this, Susie. If you ever have a nightmare and you want to wake up, yell, ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,’ three times.”

In the years that follow, I will pull blades of grass with perfect skill, but Margo’s dream advice never works. Now and then, in the middle of a nightmare, I will yell the Mommy mantra. But I don’t wake up, and my mother sleeps. 

 

Confucius and the Cherry Tree

1946

Up in the backyard cherry tree, Margo and I straddle branches, her perch higher than mine, as we collect plump cherries for Mommy in brown paper bags. It’s a small tree, easy enough for us to climb and secluded from the front yard by the trellis and the tall white fence.

We eat one cherry for each that we save—so juicy and deep-red like the roses Daddy tends on the trellis, like the rose Margo will wear in her hair when she later becomes a gypsy dancer. We spit the pits into the yard, competing to blow them the farthest, and while we do, Margo teaches me my first off-color jokes. She uses bad words, more nasty than “doo-doo,” the worst in my vocabulary so far. There’s no one around but the robins.

Today, it’s a song to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  Margo swings her legs back and forth and sings: They asked me how I knew/Chipmunk shit was blue/ I just smiled and said/ You have been misled/Chipmunk shit is red.

A thrill goes through me, or is it a shiver, as I hear the bad word? But I like Margo’s daring, her badness. We laugh and laugh until our stomachs hurt and we wet our pants. 

“Wait ‘til you hear this one, Susie!”  Her mouth full of cherries, Margo recites:  “Confucius say, ‘Woman who fly plane upside down soon have crack up!’”

I need this joke explained. When I get it, I marvel at its clever double meaning, its raciness.  

A few weeks later, my mother’s parents, the Lewins, visit from Boston. I know Grandpa loves jokes, but still I’m nervous as I approach him in the den where he rests on the sleep-away bed. Here he is this late afternoon, his large body slumped on the Mexican spread, his eyes closed, the Wall Street Journal slipping from his hands.  But I gather my nerve, for I’m usually not shy around this grandpa, with his funny, crinkly face, his silly humor, his normal English.

“Grandpa,” I say, tugging at his suit jacket. When his eyes open, I tell him about Confucius.

I thought he would laugh. But he doesn’t. He stands up, his face angry. He turns his back and walks out of the room. At once I know my mistake has been huge, and I feel pain behind my eyes.

  

Margo Dances the Tarantella

1947

Before the rose-covered trellis—a favorite backdrop for family photos—and before the lens of my first camera, Margo does the Tarantella. We are a pair—I, her admiring photographer with my Brownie Reflex, and she, all 11 years of her, a bold gypsy girl. A free spirit in gold taffeta--the ruffled skirt, trimmed with black lace, the sleek bodice resting flat over her not-yet-emerging breasts--Margo does the Gypsy dance she’ll perform soon in Miss Comer’s dance recital. For my camera, for me, on this day, she poses … now here … now there.

Arms opened wide, Margo points her toe to the side, and folds herself to the right, her heart-shaped face dreamy, trance-like, a la Isadora Duncan. Now with hands on her hips, she swivels to the left, drops her right shoulder and dips her head back, flinging her hair behind. And last with another twist, she faces front, shoots her right arm up in the air, and smiles for my camera. The red rose in her hair comes into view.

Margo and I both understand how wondrous she is in this gold and lace, flying forward in time from her child self into grown-up sexuality and allure—a world we don’t know yet. Here in our front yard, she is our dream future.  I adore Margo-as-Gypsy, and capture this with my Brownie Reflex.

 

My Sailor

1948

As I rake leaves in the back yard, the wind whips up mini tornadoes around me, and a dream from the night comes. I’m lost for a moment, stunned even. I drop my rake and slip back on a mound of leaves.
 
I’m in a phone booth with a sailor who’s returned from the War. We’re in love and whisper words about missing each other and loving forever. The sailor puts his muscley arms around my waist—that of the grown-up woman I’ve become. He touches my back, bare in my sundress, and I feel the scratch of his wool sailor suit. His fingers comb through my silky, page-boy hairdo. The phone booth is tight, but my sailor bends me backwards and kisses me just as the sailor kisses the nurse in the famous end-of-the-war Times Square photo.  I rub myself against him and feel my body parts heat up. I’m lost, dizzy, and gone. My face blends into his, my lips into his. This kiss from my sailor is deep, lustful. It’s a kiss I’ve seen in the movies, only this time I’m the woman, aroused, feeling it, loving it. 

The cold wind snaps at my face, yet my cheeks flush hot and my ears tingle. I’m mystified, sharply aware that this dream is an impossibility.   How could I experience a grown woman’s sexuality—even in a dream—when I’m just a little kid?

I shake my head, pick up my rake, and scratch at the leaves. I will never tell anyone about the dream, not even Janice. I don’t have the words. Yet I hold the dream close as a magical, spooky secret.

 

My Parents Cruise to Curacao

1952

At dusk, strange cars are parked every which way in the driveway of our new stone house on Dogwood Hill Lane. At once I understand. My parents are cruising somewhere between Cuba and Curacao; our babysitter has the night off; Margo is having a party. My throat tightens and I feel my heart clump in my chest.

Sliding my bike into the garage, I grab my school books from the basket. As I steal toward the house, I notice that our back yard—this luscious lawn which slopes down to a natural-spring pool—is strewn with high school boys, lying in the grass, partially hidden behind the huge beech trees, their arms locked around girls, one of them probably Margo.

I run up the steep back stairs into the house, and find her instead in our darkened living room, her body spread on the lap of a boy who lounges in my father’s red leather chair, his beer can soaking one of my father’s psychiatric journals, his cigarette dropping ashes on the oriental rug. Margo’s arm is flung around the boy’s shoulders, her breasts pressing against his chest, her bright red lips brushing his ear, whispering words I can’t hear, don’t want to hear. Other shadowy couples lie with their limbs intertwined on the matching couches my mother just bought. Liquor pours from silver flasks, and I worry they’ll spill their drinks, throw up, or do things I don’t want to see.

Margo notices me, slurs, “Ah, Sister Susie’s home. Join the party!”

I back out of the living room into the kitchen. Certainly there will be cold-cuts, corned beef or ham for a sandwich. But two boys corner me by the refrigerator, grinning, shifting their slim hips, chugging from their beer cans and crunching them in their hands, while they tilt their heads and quiz me—Margo’s little sister. What is my name? What grade am I in? Do I want a beer? A sip from their flasks? I’m scared of what these thick-muscled, electrically-charged boys will do, scared that sex will burst from them somehow, capture me, stab me.

I rush up to my bedroom—with no sandwich. I spread my books and notebook on my sharp-white, custom-built desk. Before I sit, I’m drawn to the window, needing to look at the back yard one last time. It’s almost dark, and all I can see are the occasional flares of matches, the pinprick lights of the cigarettes.  

 

The Valentine Boy

1956

Margo sticks out her tight-sweatered breasts and edges near the boy, a young man, really, who sits at the end of the brown plaid couch in Margo’s first grown-up apartment in Boston. “So cute, you are,” she says.  She runs her tongue over her lipsticked lips and clasps his chin in her hand. Pressing her lips to his nose, she marks him with her scarlet smudge. He pulls back, startled. “Come closer,” she says, and grabs him by his tie with one hand, thrusting her other into his thick brown hair, capturing him.  She kisses this young man on his left cheek, his right, on his mouth, smacking her lips loudly for effect. Lip imprints stick on his face like a pattern for a racy Valentine’s card.

Amused by her wild game of spread-the-lipstick, Margo turns to me, the high school girl on a weekend visit, as if for approval, then laughs at her handiwork. She twists away, lifts up her straight skirt, revealing her white fleshy thighs, her underpants, and straddles the boy. As she settles on his lap, a soft groan slides from his lips.

I am lost entirely, here in the easy chair in Margo’s living room, faced with her crazy power, a craziness I don’t yet understand. My mouth is locked.  What a huge voice it would take to stop this. But mine, at best, is a thin scratch, unsubstantial in the face of her ravishing energy. It’s a voice diminished, too, after sixteen years of growing up with Margo, where her words have increasingly filled the rooms, where most everything, it seems, belongs to her.

When I force myself to speak, the sounds come out like a broken twig, a weak whisper, a last breath. “Margo … don’t … please …. stop …” They are useless. I cannot stop Margo from seducing Aaron Moss, this young man I’ve been fixed up with who has come by to take me out on our first date. He has become my sister’s prey, her Valentine boy.

 

My Fishnet Top

1959

When I stroll down our back yard, there’s a feeling of getting familiar again--trying to relax into the yard as I’ve done so many times before, loving the space, its lush green-ness reaching way back toward the pool, unused now, hidden behind bushes and a chain link fence. I’m home from college on spring vacation.  

I don’t carry anything with me, which is unusual, no book as an (unconscious) shield, no papers to write, no exams to study for. It’s just me and the somewhat see-through, tan, fishnet top I’m wearing. I’m self-conscious about this new gift from a friend, and I’m not sure if it’s stylish or ugly, or even OK to wear since it’s so loosely woven, you can see the outline of my bra. Yet I wear it.

Way down the slope, beneath the tallest oak, I lie flat on my back in the grass and fling my arms to my sides. Breathing deeply, I look up at the green and feel the sun flashing specks of warmth on my face. As I close my eyes, the blackbirds make their racket. Or are they crows?

Suddenly, my father is there, standing over me. I sense his presence, and open my eyes. It’s not unusual that he would walk down the back yard, checking the trees for bugs, for dying limbs, hanging branches, checking the pool fence for break-ins. But it’s unusual that he would startle me so, standing over me, so close. “Oh,” I say. “It’s you.”

“So, it feels good to be home?” he asks. His glasses glint in the sun, and I can’t see his eyes.

I sit up, then quickly pull myself to my feet.

“That’s some top you’re wearing.” He shifts from one foot to the other. 

“Yeah, I know. Someone gave it to me. I don’t think I like it too much,” I say.

His gaze is fixed on my breasts, fixated on my breasts. He doesn’t turn his eyes away. Perhaps he says something else. Or maybe not.  All I know is that he should have turned his eyes away by now. Should have. I cross my arms over my breasts.  “I’d better go study,” I say, turning toward the house.

“That’s some top,” he says again, louder, his tone lewd, as if he’s suddenly slid out of his father persona into that of a creepy stranger, awkwardly picking up a honky-tonk woman in a bar, practicing his come-on. My face flushes. There’s tightness in my throat, fear.

I rush up to the house.

This didn’t just happen. This couldn’t have happened.

He stays back, and from inside, I see him walk more around the yard, picking up stray rocks, fallen branches. I don’t know what. The meticulous man. The careful man. Making sure nothing bad happens in the back yard.

 

Shock

1962

I drag the blue chaise into the still-hot, late-afternoon sun, closer to the house, and spread my things around me in the grass--my tanning lotion, sun glasses, Beginning Chinese book, yellow pad, pens, cigarettes, matches, ash tray, glass of iced coffee. I settle on the chaise, light up a Pall Mall, and open my textbook, exhaling a stream of smoke over the bold ink strokes I must learn for tomorrow’s quiz at Yale, my chosen summer distraction between college and graduate school.
 
How odd these characters! How difficult to learn!

I will not think about Margo upstairs.

With the pad on my knees, my pen poised, I slip into my study mind. The air around me softens into a protective cloud. My jaw relaxes.

I practice the pictograph for “roof” and the various elements I can write underneath it to form different meanings. I scratch the “roof” on my pad, then beneath it, the symbol for “woman,” forming the character for “peace.” An old-fashioned idea, I guess, the little woman under the roof, and all is well. It’s easy to remember, but my roof is too wavey, my woman’s elbows too sharp. 

I will not think about Margo upstairs, her stringy, unwashed hair, the purple darkness around her frantic eyes, wandering my bedroom, asking again and again where her hairbrush has gone.

The symbol for “pig” is frilly and fancy, more like a skinny bird in a fright wig. When I sketch this “pig” under the “roof,” the character means “family” or “home”—a sign of prosperity, says our instructor, Mr. Chin—a pig to sell in town, or ham to eat right at your table. A lucky family, indeed. Just like us, I think, in our big stone house, eating pork chops for dinner while Margo was falling apart in Boston, her mind exploded. I practice this character. 

Now on to “tell.” On the left, the symbol for “mouth” with dash-like words flowing out. On the right, an “ax.”  I don’t get it. The power of words? Sharp like an ax?  

Inside our stone house, words are hushed, rare. My parents don’t discuss Margo’s breakdown with me, or with anyone else that I can see. In 1962 it’s not OK to have a crazy person in the family. The word “depression,” though, slips out of their mouths and fills the rooms with gray, thick fear.  And I know enough. Margo sent to Yale/New Haven mental hospital, then taken out by my psychiatrist father, brought home, and given shock treatments at his office by another doctor.  Some afternoons, like today, I take her for shock, then bring her home to stay with me in my bedroom, upstairs.

I will not think about it.

I practice some Chinese sounds, but they connect to nothing. “Jia,” I say, “Xie,” “Xin,” “Chi.” I point to the characters and speak, point and speak, point and speak. My eyes close and my head falls back on the chaise, cheeks raised to the sun. I drift …

A car door slams. My father is home. I sit up, grab my pen, scratch anything on my pad. He strides onto the lawn near me, looks up at the roof, squinting in the sunlight at the loose drainpipe, a potential hazard.   

“How’s Margo doing?” he asks, scanning the roof.

“OK, I guess. She’s up in my room.”  I hope these will be our only words. And they are. He goes up the stairs, in for his scotch and his nap before dinner. 

My mother comes out while the roast cooks. She holds an iced tea, the New York Times. She’s so thin. “Want anything from inside?” she asks. “More coffee? Cheese and crackers?”

“No, nothing,” I say, scrunching into my study face, staring at my book.

She pulls a chair near mine, sits, opens her paper.

Pa” I say to myself. The sound for “fear.” The “heart” symbol is on the left. On the right, the symbol for “white.”  Ah, the pale heart, the heart of white, the shocked heart, frightened into whiteness. I get this. I get this.