Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

I've got yew, babe

I’m still here, albeit buried under a nearly completed dissertation and a small pile of azalea clippings as I attempt to simultaneously doctor myself and the garden at the new house. Yep, we’ve gone and joined the propertied classes. After the house-that-got-away got away, you’ll recall, I was ready to scale back operations and bide my time.

Then another house appeared. We heard about it on a Friday, saw it on Saturday, bid on Sunday, and got the call Monday to say that our bid had been accepted. Sometimes you just have to pounce.

And this place was highly pounceable: a dear wee three and a half bedroom Greek Revival cottage close to downtown, only for sale because the 91 year old owner had finally become unable to manage on his own. It’s on a quiet street, full of houses that are either lovingly maintained by Polish octogenarians, or being energetically restored by international Johnny-come-latelies like us.

An afternoon’s research in the public library revealed that the house we thought was a hundred years old was, in fact, built in 1852. It was constructed for forty-something Hezekiah Linsley, cabinet maker, and his child bride Mary Jane, who had purchased the section for a whopping $350. The Linsleys loved their new home so much that four years later they flipped it to a clockmaker and sometime bookbinder called Roswell Doolittle (What happened? death? divorce? triplets? sky-rocketing demand for downtown real estate causing an irresistible seller’s market?).

Since then, it has been occupied by a handful of impressively long-lived residents, hence its largely untouched interior. Most of them were good solid working families, although I’m particularly intrigued by Charles Curtiss, the patternmaker-turned-grocer who, in the early decades of the twentieth century, shared the house with a succession of widows... a very curious ménåge.

I can also tell you that he got the phone put on in 1915, but moved out in 1920, making way for yet another grocer. Gradually the names change from Anglo and Irish to Polish, not just in our house but all along the street, with a particular surge in the 1930s. It turns out that you can read world history in the phone book, if you know what you’re looking for.

The house stands opposite an imposing and very Polish Catholic church, St Stanislaus, which is distinguished by an impressive Madonna on a pedestal standing guard over the nunnery next door. She is not the doe-eyed sweetie-pie in a blue robe, with a soft bosom and kind smile and babe in arms. Nope: this dame is gilded from head to toe, and like her musical namesake she's a tough cookie.

A cross between Kali the destroyer and the Maria robot from Metropolis, she is depicted casually subduing a devilish snake by grinding it into the ground with her bare foot, arms thrown wide as if to say "Ta-da!"

Baby Jesus must be out with the babysitter somewhere, and he's probably better off out of the way. Even the bold and gregarious Busytot crumpled the first time he saw her -- “Make that lady NOT stand on poor snake!” he sobbed -- so now the official line is that she’s just waggishly tickling the willing reptile with her golden toes.

If the view from the front is all old-time religion and Eastern Europe, the backyard is calculated to charm the secular anglophile. It's bordered by a couple of elegant brick carriage houses with weathervane-topped turrets, and thus feels more olde England than New England. It’s a lovely backdrop for the garden, which while smallish and not overly wild, is a gem.

Right up until last year the owner kept the plants -- and himself -- in tip-top condition (it’s one of those mutually enhancing relationships, or as my exemplary aunty Betty puts it, "gardeners do tend to box on for a good long time.") This one is a sweetly eccentric old-bloke garden, with an abundance of lilac and hydrangeas and spring bulbs, and several sinfully fragrant old roses growing along the picket fence. A vege patch big enough to feed a family of fourteen sits currently unplanted, although there’s a fine crop of rhubarb bursting forth under the peach tree.

There’s also a tiny birdbath hoisted by winged cherubs at the centre of a small paved formal garden, which is planted with herbs and spring flowers. And elsewhere, some whimsical touches: a small flock of pretend chickens pose casually in the middle of the lawn, whirring plastic hummingbirds hide in the borders, and a cheeky goose peeps out of one of the neatly barbered miniature yew trees that march down the garden path. There’s even a (small plastic) snake in this Eden, slithering up the trunk of a lilac tree.

We haven’t taken possession yet -- that’s next week -- but after a few polite negotiations, I’ve been making regular forays over there in the evenings to plant herbs, tend the emerging plants, and prune the odd early-flowering tree. I’d forgotten just how happy it makes me to have dirt under my fingernails and scratches up to my elbows. Busytot putters around while I fight the foliage: the empty vege garden is one giant alluring construction site, while the paved herb garden a network of city roads, and the narrow side-yard is, inexplicably, a limousine (go figure).

He’s really getting into the spirit of it all. There’s a lot to be done inside the house -- old plaster, old wiring, old pipes -- so the last few weekends have seen a procession of building guys (and gals) coming to give quotes. They arrive festooned with sexy equipment like, oh you know, measuring tapes in their pockets and pencils behind their ears, and Busytot is mightily pleased. He is also convinced that a digger will be needed at some point in the renovations, so when I casually mentioned that it would be nice to finally have a piano again, he said, with a gleam in his eye, “We’ll build you one... with a lellow back-hoe.” That will be some instrument. I hope Hezekiah and Mary Jane would approve.


And now, a moment's silence for Ronald Reagan. Not for the man himself, but for the astonishing gap between the published tributes to an unrecognisably benevolent Santa figure, and my own memories of Maggie Thatcher's mad boyfriend who hated the poor and was going to blow us all to kingdom come with a wavering finger or a wayward word. He's the reason I can't hear a song by Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Bananarama or the Dead Kennedys, or glimpse a turquoise ra-ra skirt over fishnets and basketball boots, without feeling like there's a nuclear holocaust just around the corner. That's an eighties flashback I could seriously do without, especially now that we have another chuckling apocalyptic homophobe in the White House...