Jackson Street Blues

I grew up in the 800 block of South Jackson Street in Salisbury, NC, where all the houses were occupied by people who were, by anyone’s definition, crazy. I have stories to tell about them all. But the family that set the standard for eccentricity was my own. If they had given awards for family craziness, we would’ve been red-carpet heroes. Today, we’d have our own reality TV show.

My bedtime prayers were that by morning, my family would have been magically transformed into a completely conventional family, one that would not embarrass or humiliate me. Conventional families were like the families on television – Father Knows BestOzzie and Harriet – where the mother cooked, the family had meals together, the father stayed home in the evening and watched TV with the kids, the family socialized and played in the backyard that the father tended obsessively.

That wasn’t my family. For starters, my father worked all the time – seven days a week, twelve hours a day. He owned his own business and had plenty of excuses to be there tending it instead of being with us. When he was home, he was reading the paper, watching TV, or sleeping. He was too tired to do much else.

Daddy never did those things other fathers did. He never fixed or repaired things. In fact, we didn’t have a toolbox in our house! Daddy had no hobbies like fishing or golf as some of the other Dads did. He had no buddies to drink or bowl with. And he never worked in the yard. I was in college before he realized we had a backyard. Yet we had a large backyard with pecan, walnut, and fruit trees. My brother and I played there but only during the winter months. During the summer, the backyard was off-limits due to the dangers lurking there.

Each spring the grass grew and the yard would need mowing. But no one seemed to notice. Daddy didn’t. He must’ve thought these things took care of themselves because he didn’t own a lawn mower or any yard tools nor did we have a yard man to take care of these things.

Mama didn’t notice either. I never heard any discussion between my parents about the obviously worsening condition of our yard. More conventional people would have said ‘I have to get on to that yard. It is getting over-grown.’ But my parents didn’t have these conversations. Mama never nagged Daddy about mowing the yard.

By early summer, giant weeds took over the entire backyard. They were as tall as I and so dense I could no longer walk in the yard. We had a lovely cherry tree with delicious cherries at the far end of the yard, but the birds got them as we could not reach the tree for the weeds. I tried to normalize this with fantasies that I lived on the prairie in the mid-West or that our house was a ship and the weeds the ocean waves.

Mrs. Butcher, our babysitter, wouldn’t let me go to the backyard. She’d say, “Dottie Jean, don’t go back there.  A rattle snake will kill you.” That was Butcher, focusing on the obscure risk and ignoring the most obvious one that I would get lost in the weeds and never find my way back. I would starve after the cherries gave out.

Mrs. Butcher lived two doors down from us and she had a beautiful yard. She was fastidious about her yard as she was her house. Her yard was a Southern showplace with flower beds, hedges, bird baths and those plaster of paris ducks my brother wrote about. But never once did I hear her say anything like, “Why in the hell doesn’t your father mow the yard?” She accepted our overgrown yard as did my brother and I. For most of the summer, we simply forgot we had a backyard. We played on the sidewalk or in our friends’ yards.

Eventually, the neighbors would become disgusted and in true Southern fashion, instead of speaking directly to my father, complained to the city health department. In response, the city sent out one of their huge mowers, the kind used to mow the medians of highways. The mower would come bumping down Jackson Street, turn into our driveway, drive into the backyard, mow those weeds down and then go bumping back up Jackson Street. The whole process was loud and attracted a lot of attention. My brother and I were so embarrassed that we hid in the house till the ordeal was over but the neighbors watched from their porches or sidewalks. It was as much fun for them as the time the circus paraded down Jackson Street or when the loud trucks drove through the neighborhood at night in the summer spraying a fog of DDT to kill mosquitoes.

This weed cycle was an annual ritual. I asked my parents about it many years later and found out the city assessed Daddy for sending out their highway mower to mow his yard. He paid it without complaint. Crazy?

After my brother and I went away to college, Mama and Daddy suddenly took an interest in the backyard. They took great care of it, enhanced it, and had lots of parties there. Once Mama hired a band and everyone had a great time, dancing and partying. Everyone except the neighbors, that is. In true Southern fashion again, the neighbors called the police, not my mother, to complain about the noise. The city police drove their cruiser down Jackson Street, turned into our drive way, came out to the backyard and closed down the party.

Daddy also bought and learned to use a lawn mower. My brother believed he took up the lawn mower in hopes the effort would provoke a heart attack and kill him. I disagree. I think it’s just that Mama and Daddy were late bloomers as parents. They didn’t get the gist of parenting until we left home. My childhood prayers were answered.

© Dorothy Kirk, 2009