A certain day in April, every year, I get a call from my mother telling me the ducks are back.
It’s her way of saying, “We’ve had so much rain the yard is flooded to a near-pond state. I’m so exasperated I could scream. But I won’t, because I don’t do that.”
It’s her way of being positive about annual flooding by focusing on a dear, devoted pair of mallard ducks that have fattened themselves in our pond-like yard for thirty years. They land, paddle, they fly to a nearby inland lake on whose reedy shores they nest and raise their young.
I’m tickled that ducks come to our yard to have one last night of freedom before they lock themselves into a life with ducklings. (Or however long it takes for ducklings to become ducks.)
Like my siblings and I, the ducks tread a well-worn path to their home.
I haven’t lived near home since high school, but when I say “home,” I mean the house in which I grew up.
Where my parents live. Where ducks return. That home.
Britons ask where I’m from, I make it easy, “near Chicago.” I long to say “Grand Rapids” and have them smile in recognition. It appeared in a Hemingway short story. “Grand Rapids, you know, from the Hemingway story.” Everyone pretends to know Hemingway.
I love home. I love that it never changes, that my parents—home’s guardians—never change.
Our home is our house, of course, and our backyard, which was the size of a few tennis courts. Or, as Dad says, an acre. This was immensely practical in life, knowing by sight how many acres something is, especially in the consulting industry.
Our yard was a long, straight stretch divided into two parts by thick flower beds. We called these yard parts the “back” and the “wayback.” Not sure why. Likely “second backyard” was a mouthful, and “backyard” wasn’t specific enough when searching for a middle child.
“In the back.”
“I’m going to kill her once I get out there!”
“The wayback there.”
It was also useful for my parents when communicating to my brother which part of the yard needed mowing on our awesome riding mower. A chore that was completely my brother’s and, as far as my sister and I are concerned, the only chore he ever had. Which I do not resent to this day. Not one bit.
The back and the wayback were separated and surrounded by flower beds, my mother’s ecstasy and agony from the day we moved in up to the last time I spoke to her.
Ecstasy because, like her father before her (and her daughter after), she is a farmer at heart. Her hands belong in the soil, her arms shouldering ropes of garden hose like rubber lassos. She’s the kind of person who walks around naming flowers and shrubs while lamenting the deleterious effect of turn-key landscaping on human morality.
The agony of the job (we call it a job) comes from her approach. Though she lives in the suburbs, my mother is not, and never has been, a gardener.
The difference between gardening and farming is simple: enjoyment vs. necessity.
Anyone who knows and loves my mother would agree she doesn’t get a whole lot of enjoyment out of yard work (we call it work). There were brief moments of delight when the daylilies bloomed or the peonies came out, but it was short-lived. The daylilies needed to be deadheaded, and the peonies had the temerity to fall over and needed to be stalked.
When she’s not out among her lilies, she’s longingly looking at them. She treats blooming schedules with the same rigor and steely preparation with which farmers treat harvest.
At the same time, she’s compelled to garden, and fulfilling that compulsion can be type of enjoyment. Let’s just say Mom could teach Gilbert and Sullivan a few things about duty and honor. A penchant for hard, laborious work defines her personality. It is what she expected of herself and everyone around her. Challenges were compelling obstacles as long as they were conquerable through hard work.
I was always a challenge for my mom—perhaps her largest one.
We never got along because I decided from age three I didn’t need mothering, and she decided from my age three that oh my goodness, I certainly did.
And yet, because I inherited the farmer gene, I was out there with her, in the back and the wayback. Learning all I could from this extremely hard-working woman.
At her side, I learned a lot. Mom is a gifted teacher, always has been. And she’s a clear thinker. Things are good (certain insects, loam soil, silver maples, rabbits) or bad (other insects, clay soil, cottonwoods, hungry rabbits).
And grass, she taught me a lot about grass.
“Ellen, this is bent grass. It’s awful! See how it sticks up? And falls over? It’s clumpy. Bent grass.”
“Mom, why don’t you dig it up and put down stones?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Then she’d spot crabgrass. Crabgrass was different from bent grass because it was a weed.
“Ellen, when you buy a house, check the grass. Make sure it’s not crabgrass. You cannot get rid of that stuff.” Then she’d bend over and yank out the crabgrass with the blind madness of a mother pulling her child out of a well. And it would grow back, like she said it would.
Bent grass and crabgrass, however, were passing annoyances compared to the real evil: rain.
Or, more specifically, water. It was always about water.
Too little and all the plants would die – Mom felt their thirst in her bones. We scrambled like a Victorian fire brigade carrying bucket after bucket to thirsty hydrangeas or moved the sprinkler eleven times in one day so it would water – but not burn – the roses or phlox. I assumed Sprinkler Scramble would end once she installed automatic sprinklers, but no, they didn’t hit the right spots.
Too much water was more frequently the issue. In spring after the snow melt, the yard would flood. In the summer after heavy rain, the yard would flood. In the autumn when the ground was hard and dry, the yard would open up and reveal a mythical land not unsimilar to Narnia.
No, just kidding. It would flood.
It’s where we live, you see, Western Michigan.
Clouds wander over from Wisconsin, pull up the water from Lake Michigan in capricious glee, then dump it like an incontinent child.
“It’s because we’re lower than our neighbors. Ellen, see how their yards slope into ours? When you buy a house, look at the neighbors’ yards. If they are above you, even the slightest bit, you’ll flood.”
I nodded, our house was slightly below the neighbors.
As if the never-ending rain and flooding weren’t enough, the yard issues were supremely exacerbated by my father, whose only role – other than observing rain – seems to have been riding the mower before my brother was old enough to take over.
Dad treated rain as some kind of competition Mother Nature had with herself every year, events of which he was the self-appointed record keeper.
“Ellen, we’ve had thirty inches of rain in the first three days of April, that is the second-most on record. We’ve had five inches in the first three hours of the last five days of June. We’ve had more rain in this one minute than the city of New York has had all year. Ellen, where are you going?”
“I’ll be in the wayback.”
Dad managed this for dry spells too. You can imagine the effect on my mom.
My mother wanted my Dad to share in hard work, for the sake of it and he didn’t, rightly thinking, “I kinda like life without hard work.”
Meanwhile, my Dad wanted my Mom to be interested in Mother Nature outdoing herself yet again, and Mom, rightly, wasn’t impressed with this temperamental broad who dumped water all over our bent grass and then invited ducks.
What they should have connected on was their ridiculous ability to be affected by something that happened the same way, the same time, to the same extent every single season.
But I digress. I was talking about home.
When you go home as an adult, you go to return to something in yourself.
In this kinder, safer place where you don’t do your own dishes and dinner just appears, you regress. And there is pain, too, pain that’s hard to escape. I hardly go in our basement—it’s where I suffered most, the only place I could.
I return to home to escape into that little person I keep inside, the one who played, sneaked, hid, lied, and learned. I sit with her, hold her, nurture her into my present.
I took it for granted that my parents were always the same parents, like the flooding, the grass and the tedious, predictable ducks.
Except, this year. Perhaps I was broody myself, I realized for the first time the ducks aren’t the same ducks.
THEY AREN’T THE SAME DUCKS!
Of course they aren’t the same ducks. How could they be? Ducks don’t live thirty years, not even Michigan ducks, which are, like most things in Michigan, exceptional.
When Mom called this April, I told her “Mom, they aren’t the same ducks!”
“Same ducks as what?”
“As when I was a kid.”
“Of course not. Did you think they were?”
My Mom noticed the ducks were different. Why didn’t I?
I’m always asking Mom and Dad to notice I’m not the same person I used to be. Not that child. I’ve changed.
My Mom’s been saying something to me too, recently. “You know, Ellen, I’ve changed a lot. So has your father.”
I imagine it’s equally hard for parents to see their children as individuals. How they saw me was relative to my role in the family, a role in which I was disruptive and difficult. But as an individual, I was also pretty interesting, they didn’t always see that.
But they do now, in spades, they love me for me. And I see them, perhaps for the first time.
Mom still looks longingly at the yard, her brain seventy percent full of work she has to do—but it used to be ninety-nine percent full. She’s made room for enjoyment. I can see it in her face when she talks about it, when she shows me around. She, in pure aesthete moments, accepts gardener Gertrude Jekyll’s presumption that gardening, when done right, is art.
And Dad, Dad has put down his abacus and picked up a sprinkler and even puts it in the right place, occasionally. And Mom lets him help. Occasionally. And of course he mows, now that my brother has a yard of his own.
They are kind, wise, tolerant, and loving. Like Prospero at the end of the Tempest (a man who knows a thing or two about water levels.) And they never expect me to be like them, most of all, in my own path becoming a parent myself – or not – they have remained quiet and supportive – never passing judgment.
We’ve all changed. We’re not the same people we used to be. We’re not the same ducks.
Home is where the people you love are, no matter how much they change, and sometimes because of how much they change.
I will always come home.
To keep up to date with all the latest news enter your email below.