It was twelve years ago that Mom felt the need for us to leave Walla Walla and move up the state to Cheney, Washington. That was the year of the divorce, and Mom had obtained custody of all eight of us kids, ages one to nineteen (a mixed blessing, as it were). I was eleven years old at the time.
How Mom was able to remain as calm as she did during this trying period we may never know, but we kids did notice that her sprinkling of gray hairs soon developed into a cloudburst of gray.
Well, Mom found a newly built house in a new housing area, and we moved in. I was to live there for eight years—until I went on a mission and then to college.
I have many wonderful memories of those years in Cheney—of family, school, church, and friends—but, strangely enough, it is the yard at our house that evokes some of my deepest memories. These experiences are not necessarily the most memorable, but they are the most unforgettable. Let me explain.
My first memory of the Yard is from right after we moved into our new home. It had a kind of natural aesthetic appeal—a homey atmosphere of dirt mounds punctuated with interesting rock formations. Like any eleven-year-old, I had hoped to keep it that way, but when I mentioned this to Mom, her reply was, “We’re going to plant grass.” We children were amazed, and I dared query how we could possibly accomplish that, considering all the mounds, rocks, and weeds. Mother smiled mysteriously. I got nervous.
Well, out came the shovels and rakes, and we proceeded to become acquainted with the Yard. It was a most intimate relationship. We were convinced that Mom broke every child-labor law in making us pick up big rocks and rake small ones into piles. It was then our job to shovel them into our little red wagon and haul them to the designated disposal area. This did not help endear the Yard to us. This backbreaking activity was followed by more raking—filling in the low spots and tearing down the high ones—until the Yard was perfectly level and smooth.
The Yard was now ready for grass.
We planted the grass and carefully watered it. Now all we had to do was sit back, relax, and wait for the fruits of our labor to appear. And on one beautiful spring day, we glimpsed the first tender green shoots glistening in the morning dew. As time progressed, we could see more delicate blades, nourished ever so gently by the soil. It was a veritable wonderland for us, seeing nature in action. The blades grew even bigger—and before long it was apparent to the entire neighborhood that our family was blessed with a green thumb, of sorts—for the Yard now had a thick carpet of noxious weeds. The grass had yet to sprout! The Yard had managed to pull a fast one on us.
Mom again hit onto a plan.
I believe that my older brother Wes was the first to learn of this plan. He had asked Mom for permission to go play somewhere. She was obliging—“That will be fine, right after you pull two full buckets of weeds for me.” The rest of us became aware of the plan as we heard ranting and raving fill the house. Then, for the benefit of us all, Mom went on to define a “full bucket”: it was a bucket of tightly compacted weeds, not one where the weeds were carefully positioned to give the appearance of being full. Mom also forced us to use itsy-bitsy screwdrivers to loosen the roots so we could extract the entire weed from the soil.
Soon every imaginable activity had a price, for which weeds were the only legal tender. Whether we wanted to go to a dance or go fishing or swimming or whatever else Mom thought was fun for us, there was a price of one, two, or three buckets. The price depended on the scope of the activity and the amount of back talk we gave her.
Incredibly, the day finally came when the Yard exhausted its weed supply. There was great rejoicing among the children. We felt that it was time to rest from our labors.
The next day, under mysterious circumstances, a biblical quote appeared on the refrigerator door. It read simply, “He that is idle shall not eat the [wheat] bread of the laborer.” By simple deductive reasoning, we figured out who made the wheat bread and who, therefore, was the laborer. Taking the message literally, we figured that we kids had the best of the deal—no more wheat bread! The following day, though, the quote was amended to read “food” in place of “[wheat] bread.” There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth.
It was then that Mom announced her next “great idea,” as she modestly called her notions. Mom had read a quote attributed to Brigham Young in which he had allegedly said, “It is better to dig a ditch and fill it in and dig it again, rather than do nothing.” It became her rallying cry. Her idea was to get us to dig in the Yard—ditch digging, shrub-hole digging, foundation digging, and most important, garden digging, which she quaintly called “rototilling.”
I came to know well our two shovels—“Pointy” and “Square.” Mom always used the same ploy to get me to dig—a variation of the proverb “You have to lather a man before you shave him.” Her comments were usually something like, “Despite your incessant whining, you have been such a big help to me, and I am so thankful that you are not as rebellious as some of your older brothers have been at times.”
Gullible me. Ten minutes later I would awaken from my visions of grandeur to find that somehow I was in the garden, Pointy in my hands, busily rototilling.
To ease my labors, Mom often enumerated the benefits of digging in the Yard: the therapeutic value of breathing deeply that sweet elixir of life, becoming one with nature, working by the sweat of my brow for my thrice-weekly wheat mush. But I did find one bright spot in this work. Mom always let me dig up (“rototill”) about half of the strawberry patch every year. (Strawberries were on my hate-list at the time.) It was the only pleasurable work I ever did in the Yard.
Mom used the same underhanded ploy to get me to dig the foundation for the carport “we” were going to build. By then I was the oldest son at home, so in my presence she made a comment to the contractor about how helpful I was sure to be. She knew no mercy. The Yard grinned with anticipation. I found solace only in the fact that the amount of the Yard being covered with cement was considerable, and that would make weeding and mowing easier. As a matter of fact, because of this, nary a word of complaint escaped my lips in all the long weeks of work. (If you are skeptical, feel free to ask Mom. Just remember that because of her advancing age, her memory is not what it used to be.)
Yes, working in the Yard supplied me with many unforgettable—though not necessarily memorable—experiences. If Mom seems to play the part of the antagonist, it is important to remember that she was the one who thought up and inflicted on her children all those “great ideas.” Yet, in retrospect, I should add she was also out every night landscaping and weeding the lawn, then helping to dig the carport foundation. She probably outworked all of us kids five times over.
The only thing I can’t figure out is why, despite our doing the lawn by hand, it is one of the best-looking ones in the neighborhood. The garden seems to produce more than those rototilled by machine, and the carport looks good, too. There must be a moral hidden somewhere in these memories. Maybe the importance of work in helping children to turn out right? Naw, it couldn’t be that—could it?