In the interests of full disclosure I have never been a student of poetry, and, I admit envying poets all that white space that us writers of prose must fill with words.
Nonetheless, even I had some vague knowledge of “When Lilacs Last on the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the long poem Walt Whitman penned the summer after the death of President Lincoln. I tried to read it. Once.
And if I knew, everyone must know, I presumed. That title had to be so familiar my using lilacs, dooryard and bloomed in one sentence in the text of a column would not be borrowing from Whitman rather more like citing a familiar song title.
So, I was stricken when I looked at the printed paper and saw “yard” and got in response to my “what happened?” an astonishing, near boastful, it seemed, “I don’t know that word” or “I didn’t think it was a word” or something equally annoying. I was probably as annoyed that those three words, in one sentence, didn’t trigger some distant memory.
It was more bizarre as it was a reflection of a scene in a movie my friend’s children, all now grown, were watching one afternoon to catch a glimpse of a particular actor. It was one of those things which might have forever slipped from my memory but for the reinforcement of that copy editor. That was fiction, in real life even someone unfamiliar with the term “dooryard” should be able to figure it out!
I hit the trifecta one summer day, on the phone with a potential photo customer when folks came to the door of the gallery on the corner, with that lost look that had become so familiar. I asked the gentleman on the line if he minded holding a moment, a euphemism for a phone with no “hold.” He knew the place and didn’t mind.
The rental for which they were looking was up High Street, after the plateau, past the pond, around the curve. It was newly shingled, and for extra measure, I threw in that it was across from an old farmhouse with several outbuildings. “What are ‘outbuildings?’” I’m not sure what I replied, only that when I got back on the phone the man asked in disbelief “did he just ask ‘what are. . .?’”
Maybe it is an old-fashioned term, a left-over from the time when yards were enclosed, be they the pocket gardens of small town, or the defining bounds of a house in a farm setting. Was the fence to keep the children in or the animals out?
There was an old fence around the yard when I was little, with three gates, one to the barnyard, one out front, near the road, and the third to the big vegetable garden. In some vaguest of memories there was snow fencing closing a gap to the back yard, and only in the instant of writing those words have I found the answer to a near life-long wonderment, why there is a roll of snow fencing in the rafters of the old shed.
Some old houses still have picket fences, at least a portion of them, surrounding a patch of grass outside a door, or merging with hedges and board fencing. Others were lost to age, flattened by the wind, some replaced with less high maintenance rails, some not at all. There was at least one house on the West Side, well off the main road, with a low iron fence, one of those wonderful out-of-place discoveries side roads once held. Even the original Pequot, now Harborside, on the front street, was “protected” by a white picket fence.
We never had stacks of photographs from our childhood, but there were, representing several autumns, little booklets, when processed snapshots were returned spiral bound, between red covers. They represented one of our mother’s few luxuries, photo Christmas cards to be sent to the scattered family.
The most striking thing about most of the old photos is the background, wide open fields with few buildings in the distance. I was too little to have any memory of the day this photo of us, by the faded picket fence, was taken, but it does affirm a memory of after-the-snow mornings, looking west, up across the land to the Cottage Farm on the Neck Road, its red roof vanished, blanketed with white.
Even in winter, when the leaves have all fallen, I can see nothing, not even a corner of the roof of that house from my yard, my dooryard.