Dear ‘Backyard’

I hope you won’t mind this being a kind of group letter, a round-robin, like people send at Christmas? I wanted to get back in touch and then realised that perhaps one letter would n’t do. At first, I thought about home and my “homes” through life. But the word “Homeland” is just as much about land as home, so I got to thinking about the land part. What makes up the ground I stand on, the bedrock of my emotional landscapes?
It started with territory; my childhood backyard…I explored like Columbus there, knowing every tiny detail: when small stones fell out of the mortar, I lined them up on castles made of sand left over from my father’s D.I.Y, the coal shed and outside loo chilly and dank, a black clothed, grubby faced, ragged tramp used to come. I gave him the thick slices of bread and butter and milk that my mother prepared for him, a quiet lesson in tolerance and generosity. I knew the hole under the fence where the cat wriggled to freedom, a hollow which could conceal a small child, the scrabbly cage for my brother’s white mice (who one day found themselves dangling out of the mouth of same cat), the roots of the laburnum tree and its shiny black seeds, that I, thrillingly, knew were poisonous and never to be eaten, but could be handled like shiny, black, deadly pearls. I planted my first seeds there, orange marigolds. I cut open old daffodils to find the seeds under the faded blooms; always curious, the Homeland provided rich pickings. Your small area was full of promise; exploration, creation, escape, danger, knowledge. You tolerated it all silently, without reproach, when my father concreted you over and without farewells, when we moved house.
Your lands enlarged. The Park opposite, the road to school and playing fields, the overgrown neglected garden we roamed in; trees, tarmac , grass and railing. More exploring, the long grass, the short grass, we knew every bump and hollow, every bush, every flowerbed, which trees we could climb, wriggling under your sharp holly leaves, we gradually extended our range away from the Homeland near our house, to the bowling greens, tennis courts, beech park, main road, allotments, back alleys for ‘terrifying’ apple scrumping. The urge to travel was strong.
My territory grew; I came to know your history, Roman walls, medieval layout, gothic churches, the river, bridges, trade and tourists who marvelled at you. I was proud to direct them and explain.
Homeland always sounds ancestral to me. My ancestral lands are mythic now. My grandfather’s house is under a motorway, his vegetables, chickens and ink black range, all gone. My Father’s Homeland is faraway in Poland. I didn’t visit until I was 14, with no common language, I baked under your continental sun, puzzled over your distributed strips of farmland and forest, enjoyed the unfamiliar fruits of your farms, garlic sausages, hams, compotes, poppy seed breads and pancakes fragrant with lemon and sweet cheese. At Christmas time, I followed your traditions, awkward at first, more confident and fun as I grew older, sharing your distant Homeland legacy with friends in different places.
Other lands and soils are in my bones now. I have trodden many moorland paths in sun, rain cloud, alone, with others, contemplating, talking, raging, laughing. Open spaces hold my soul in a calm embrace, always there in my head when I need solace or perspective. Then Africa, the red earth of Zimbabwe sears into me, hot sky and earth smell foretelling rain. You grew me up as a doctor there, facing blood, pain and death in the eye, pitting my small skills against misery; prescribing, operating, training. You taught me to hold my optimism bright against the shadow of passivity. “Drip, drip and the bucket will fill up” I said to myself. Your harsh drought sands suddenly greened in a week after rain, your fields parched of luxury, even of water and food. Your land became a Homeland too, changed me, haunted my dreams for years, all brought back with a jolt of recognition, your scent of trees and wood-smoke as soon as I left the airport.
In Malawi, the lake I swam in at Chembe, huge rocks sheltering brightly coloured fish, the laughing mountain rivers that washed me, gave me drink, whose fish we caught to eat, liberated me from status, cares and responsibilities for a while. Under your shelter we played like children the live long day.
So Homelands, remember I am always with you, as you are with me, even if we don’t speak every day. You are probably indifferent to my news…family, husband, career, singing and reading, gardening and wandering, for every land has plenty of offspring and you are grown older and more forgetful. But I remember you all tenderly and with gratitude. One day, you will receive your due from my bones and ashes, as just repayment for your blessings. May my remains enrich you, as you have enriched me.
With tenderness and respect         Avril

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