Half hidden by shrubs and tree branches, there’s a bench in my backyard’s southeast corner, short and stout, its thin pine planks grayed by the elements and mottled with mint-green lichen.
Weakened by age, it is a delicate little thing, which no one has sat on for years, but there it remains, my wife and I stubbornly refusing to part with it.
We love that bench, survivor that it is. Superstorm Sandy sloshed through our Merrick neighborhood in 2012, flooding our yard with saltwater, lifting all manner of lawn furniture from people’s yards and depositing it who knew where. That little bench — just large enough to fit two preschoolers — never budged.
My wife bought it 15 years ago to give our daughter and son — then 5 and 3, respectively — a place to sit under the shade of an old flowering dogwood tree.
I was marching to and fro on a recent balmy Friday evening, mowing the backyard lawn, when I was suddenly struck by how special that bench is, what it represents to my wife and me — years of happy memories wrapped up in an inanimate object. I stopped and stared at it as the remembrances coursed through my mind.
I’m feeling more emotional than usual these days. Covering the coronavirus pandemic for the Heralds has, at times over the past six months, shaken me to my core. Covid-19 devastated New York state, particularly the greater metropolitan area. Writing and editing stories about the deaths of so many good people takes its toll on your psyche.
At the same time, my son, Andrew, graduated from Kennedy High School in Bellmore in June, and three weeks he later turned 18, officially becoming an adult. He began his studies at Hofstra University last week. My daughter, Alexandra, 20, started her junior year at NYU this week. I am no longer the parent of children; I am the parent of two adults, capable of driving, voting and earning their keep.
It’s a strange thought that takes some getting used to.
That’s why, I believe, my thoughts have more often turned to those long summer days spent in the backyard, lost in play with the kids when they were young, their giddy chatter echoing through the neighborhood as they bounced through the sprinkler, bobbed in the inflatable pool, played hide-and-seek or badminton, or kicked the soccer ball around until their legs gave out from fatigue.
Always, the bench was there. I hadn’t noticed how it had aged until that recent Friday. Only the brown metal centerpiece across its backrest, depicting an African savanna with a lion, a monkey, a gazelle, an elephant and a giraffe, is seemingly untouched by time.
Around the time our kids were in preschool, my wife and I planted 10 peegee hydrangeas, three dwarf cherry trees and two apple trees around our backyard, and later added two white pines in oversized pots beside the patio. Each set of flora was imbued with meaning.
When we moved in 18 years ago, a line of forsythia bushes separated our yard from our neighbor behind us. Each spring it exploded in yellow for two weeks. Then the neighbor, who has since moved away, cut down the bushes, and there was no longer any vegetation, any color.
So we ordered 10 one-foot-tall hydrangea seedlings for $3.50 each from the Arbor Day Foundation. They came packaged in clear plastic tubes, their fragile roots wrapped in wet paper towels to preserve them. These specimens weren’t much to look at at first; you hardly knew they were there. Each year they grew, though, and now they tower eight feet above our backyard, forming a tunnel-like canopy along our rear fence line, bursting with puffy white flowers in mid-August.
We planted the cherries in honor of my wife’s parents, who kept a cherry orchard in their home village of Rajdavitsa, in southwestern Bulgaria. The white pines we planted for my parents, who maintained a pine forest in the front and back yards of my childhood home in Yaphank, in Suffolk County. And the apples we planted for our kids, so we could watch the trees grow with them. They’re now 30 feet tall.
The bench sits between the apples and the hydrangeas, their lush vegetation covering it in shade. The old dogwood died five years ago, and I cut off its branches then and chain-sawed its trunk down this summer.
These days, my backyard is quieter than it was — the giddy chatter is gone. Often I sit on a much larger bench on the opposite side of this space, between the hydrangeas and a massive holly bush. It’s a sturdy bench, made of teak, the kind that feels like it might last a century.
There I sit and find peace in the early morning or late evening, before or after a long day’s work, reflecting on all that was and all I hope will be.
My backyard has long been my sanctum to escape the sound and fury of the world beyond its borders.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.