This is something I’ve been thinking about all through this strange springtime when, despite being home so much more than normal, we are in fact allowed to go outside, to walk all over everywhere, to enjoy the flowers in everyone else’s yards as well as our own gardens.
Twenty-one years ago, when Daniel and I had been living together for just a few years and one of my cousins had been married an even shorter time, she asked me why Daniel and I didn’t get married. We got into an email debate on the subject, and one of the things she said comes back to my mind every spring.
She thought that it was silly of me to put any effort into my unmarried relationship because I wasn’t “building anything”–that without a promise of unwavering permanence, our relationship couldn’t sustain or support me. She compared it to renting a house and putting a lot of money and work into improving it, like planting perennial flowers in the yard, which would be just obviously futile because I don’t own that yard and won’t live in that house all the rest of my life.
Well, in fact, at that point we did live in a rented house, and we had spent a lot of time and a little money planting flowers in the yard. Wasted? We were enjoying our yard very much that spring, feeling that our efforts had paid off beautifully and we’d be enjoying our flowers for years to come. Actually, some perennials had been in the yard already, planted by someone we’d never met who’d lived in that house sometime in the 80 years before we moved into it. We appreciated that gift.
The following spring, our landlord suddenly sold the entire cluster of houses to a developer notorious for ripping out charming old landscaping and replacing it with Legal Daisy Spacing. Daniel and I rented an apartment with a large, sunny front yard that was all just plain lawn–and a landlord who said it was okay to put in flowerbeds. We spent many hours digging–there were a lot of rocks under the lawn!–and then we dug up the flowers from our old yard and planted them in the new yard. There they grew spectacularly.
We lived in that apartment just two years before we bought the house where we live now. But those were two very eventful years, with some happy times and some big fights, some important projects and some key realizations. That place was our home in an important season of our lives.
Years later, when I walked our son to school in the morning and then walked to the bus that took me to work, one of the ways I could go was past our old apartment. Every spring, I passed by to see the tulips and daffodils and grape hyacinths come up in our old yard from those same bulbs we had planted. I admired their blooms, followed by the irises and peonies and lavender, and it didn’t bother me one bit that that lovely garden isn’t mine anymore, that I don’t know who lives there and they don’t know who planted their flowers. That’s not the point.
Daniel and I planted flowers in a place where we expected to live for only a short time because, while we were living there, it was home. We like our home to have flowers for our own enjoyment–but when we left that place, knowing that yard wasn’t slated for demolition, we left the flowers there. They help to make that place the home it deserves to be for whoever lives there. They make that street a happier place for everyone. Whether we personally walk along that street or not, the work we put into planting those flowers was worth it worth it worth it!
When we bought our house, we found we were living a few houses upstreet from one of my ex-boyfriends. He and I were together for about a month way back when I was 20 and he was 17. We had some good times, but in many ways I wasn’t being fair to him, and he was right to break up with me. In the long run, we would’ve been incompatible in various ways; maybe we could’ve worked through that, but the fact is that we didn’t. Instead, we continued being friends.
For a dozen years, he was that neighbor who had a key to our house and watered our plants when we went on vacation. We hardly ever got around to spending much time together, but when we happened to see each other we always enjoyed talking.
Eventually his girlfriend moved in with him, and after a while they got married. Daniel and I and our son attended the wedding. As I hugged the groom, I remembered a lot of things–moments we shared in a time that was very brief but packed with drama: his first semester of college, my change of course, a chapter of growing up for both of us, a time that affected each of us because we shared it. It wasn’t all fun; it wasn’t anything like forever, but it was worth it worth it worth it!
Now he is someone else’s husband. I haven’t gotten to know her very well, but every time I’ve seen them together, I can tell how much she loves him, how she’s taking care of him and he’s taking care of her, how great they are together, how much they deserve each other. Will their marriage last forever? I can’t say. What I hope is that their time together, however long it lasts, makes both of them better people and the world a better place. I had my role in shaping who he is now; I hope I did more good than harm; I’m glad to see him with her.
After a few more years as our neighbors, that ex-boyfriend and his wife moved to a distant suburb, and we lost touch. We exchanged keys with the couple right next-door to us and began house-sitting for each other, swapping veggies from our farm-share crates . . . and now minimizing each other’s coronavirus exposure by picking up groceries for each other on our masked missions to the stores.
In January of this year, back in that strangely long-ago time when I was reading about worry that the virus could spread to Shanghai but it seemed like it could never come here, I took my kindergarten daughter to a community festival celebrating Lunar New Year–one of those things we used to do, where several hundred people would cram into a school building on a weekend to share the craft materials, shuffle through the food lines, eat with unwashed hands, and sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the gym floor watching performances. (It seems appallingly risky from the perspective of a few months later!)
There, in the Japanese drumming troupe, I saw that ex-boyfriend and ex-neighbor. He isn’t of Japanese ancestry, but he was always interested in Japanese culture, so I was not surprised to see that he’d taken up this hobby. It was fun to watch him drumming and dancing and shouting with the others, fun to see how well they work together.
After the performances, my daughter joined some other young children running races across the now mostly-empty gym. As my ex-boyfriend finished rolling drums out the door and walked toward me, a little girl ran to him and hugged his leg, and when she turned her face toward me I realized that this was his daughter. We’d been out of touch so long, I hadn’t known he had a child! And here she was playing with my little girl, who’d been growing inside me when her parents moved away from my street. My ex-boyfriend and I spent a few minutes catching up, mostly talking about the stresses and joys of parenting. It was wonderful to meet his daughter and to see him again! I’ve been thinking about them this spring, wishing them well.
Not all my ex-boyfriends have had such happy endings. Some have wound up very lonely, besieged by troubles. Others have lost touch, so I don’t know what happened with them. Like the flowers I’ve planted that didn’t grow, or bloomed once but didn’t make it through the winter, or were gnawed by squirrels, I don’t take their fates lightly. What happened to them may not have been my fault, but I still care; I wish that it was better; I keep looking for them and hoping to see new green shoots.
Meanwhile, my relationship with Daniel feels more and more permanent. We didn’t vow forever, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be! Whether it is forever or not, we are together now. Everything we do for each other shapes both of us, so it matters for us, for the world, for now, for later. We never declared that this was a relationship worth our effort. It’s worthwhile simply because it exists.
Owning a home doesn’t feel much different to me than renting a home did, because I never felt that a home’s being “just temporary” meant I didn’t have to take care of it or didn’t notice whether it was comfortable. Home is home. It is important. Even when I’ve known a particular place would be my home for just a few months, it’s been worth the effort, for the memories it gives me and the knowledge that I changed it a little, shaped it, hopefully made it better.