When I was in grad school, my younger friend, Joan, lived in a two-flat in Roscoe Village. The flat, on Wolcott Avenue, was unusual because it had a big side yard. Joan basically had the whole place to herself, because the old woman who owned it and lived in the bottom flat, had gone to live with her daughter, leaving her things in place.
When Joan married and moved away, she bequeathed her wonderful flat to me. By then, she and I had been gardening there together for several years; I continued. Later, the building’s owner died, and her children remodeled her flat. They asked if anyone I knew would like to live downstairs. Happily, my good friend KW came to live there.
My flat was simple, with tall windows. I was writing my dissertation, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was going to yoga or to work in the garden in the morning. In fact, I could garden for many, many hours. Working outside was like a vital drug that I needed to survive. I bought a push-mower, painted the front fence, raked mountains of leaves. Because I had a big kitchen and an enclosed back porch, I could even grow some of my plants from seed.
In the summer, I could look down at the yard, at the poppies and lilies. I would plant bedding plants, just like my mother, which made me happy. Sometimes my friend and I would sit in the side yard on the grass and talk. That was lovely.
In the back yard was an enormous maple tree, under which grew shade plants, spring ephemerals, ferns and anemones. There were patches of lilies-of-the valley. Tough old lilac bushes. In the summer, we even had rhubarb and raspberries.
The fact that we didn’t own Wolcott contributed to the garden’s idyllic quality. In fact, our more prosperous neighbors, whose lots were overbuilt, regarded our situation with open envy. They had garages and decks, but no simple yards where their children could play.
The fact that anonymous renters had gardened there before our arrival added to the garden’s considerable mystery. Unfamiliar plants, planted who knows when, would appear in the spring. Trumpet flowers of some kind, stars-of-bethelem aplenty. Continuing the tradition, I planted vinca furtively salvaged from a nearby house that was being demolished and tended the woody hydrangea for the next inhabitants to enjoy.