The great American novelist Henry James is famous for declaring “summer afternoon” the two most beautiful words in the English language, and I won’t argue with that. But I think we need to decide where, exactly, is the best place to spend a summer afternoon. In my book, you can’t find a better spot than a really good back yard. What makes up an ideal back yard? In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with . . .
A place to sit: One you’ve reached a certain age – and you’ll know once you’ve reached it – sitting on the ground loses its appeal. The joy of grass stains and soggy shorts gives way to the desire for a little padded support, whether it’s a fancy chaise lounge or an adjustable Adironback chair with a wool blanket thrown over top. I’ve always liked the look of those springy metal lawn chairs, but after trying out my aunt and uncle’s as a kid, I learned just how easily they could fry your thighs after heating up all day in the sun.
A place to read: This is something I do no matter where I am – at the kitchen table, in the bath tub, on the subway, in an airplane, you name it. (If only I could read in a car without getting seasick!) Outdoors is a lovely place to read, even with birds competing for my attention. As long as the neighbors don’t have their radios tuned to some blasted station, I can read contentedly under any tree.
Something to eat: The best thing to eat outdoors is something you’ve harvested yourself, and I don’t mean mowing it down with a combine. I mean reaching over to pluck a still-warm concord grape off a vine, or a perfectly ripe tomato. How lucky can you get?
A place to get out of the sun: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – You’re not still tanning, are you? Tanning, my dears, is bad, and stupid, and dangerous. Even with new research indicating we need vitamin D more than we thought we did, doctors, especially dermatologists and oncologists, caution we should get it through food and supplements, not by walking around in the sun unprotected. As a person who has had a “freckle” removed that my doctor told me could very well have turned into melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer of all if left alone, I’m begging you to treat the sun with due respect. Even when you find your shady spot in the back yard, slather on your SPF.
A place to hide: The best back yards, I think, are places of refuge. Soon after my divorce, my children and I lived in a not particularly nice apartment complex that had a place they loved to play in, just behind our place, that they called their “secret hiding place.” Before that, we lived out on the prairie of eastern Colorado, where our front yard had a view of the whole front range of the Rockies and our back yard, such as it was, comprised one quarter acre of mostly winter wheat and tumbleweed that hadn’t tumbled yet. My daughter loved to play out there in what she called her “secret sand.” The operant word here: secret.
This idea of refuge reminds me, too, of a visit we had from some Australian friends. They were visibly taken aback when we took them to our patio and back yard, because it was so open. In their part of the world, back yards are literally walled in and very private. It’s the front yard where neighbors visit.
Contrarily, a back yard is a place to entertain: I love those photo spreads in magazines of happy people seated at long, wooden tables covered with colorful cloths and dish after dish of delicious looking food and wine. They sit at their wooden chairs as the sun is setting, not a care in the world about the weather or bugs or who is sitting by whom. Everything is perfect because they have this perfect back yard. (And, obviously, a caterer and bartender and maids.)
Flowers: Some things are nonnegotiable, like lilacs and peonies and purple coneflowers. Those, I have now. I’d love also love some hydrangeas and bearded irises, and fruit trees. I used to walk home from school through an apple, and oh, what a wonderland that was. Now I live in a place with a crab apple tree in the back yard, and it gives its all every May. Its blooming season is too short, but it is glorious.
I learned to love back yards as a child, where I pretended the segmented wood fence my dad constructed was a series of horses, which I would throw blankets over and ride. Later, I would sit under the weeping willow and read for hours. My parents’ back yard was nice because it was flat, while the one I live with now is, like so many in Dubuque, ridiculously vertical. As it is, I rarely visit the back 40. We have a self-propelled mower so we can get the thing up the hill. I find myself looking with longing at flat back yards we pass by.
Someday, we’ll build steps to get from one end to the other, and then maybe we can have a little picnic up there, under the crab apple tree when she’s in all her glory. We’ll throw one of my mother’s pretty quilts over a long table, serve some good food from the farmer’s market (if not from our own garden), and make our friends glad to be in our back yard.