by Susan Rogers
My father’s yard embarrassed me. The yard of my childhood was a patchy bit of grass, in the back and in the front—we had a corner lot—and loaded with weeds. Overburdened with teaching writing at Penn State and writing novels my father, Thomas Rogers, took no care of the yard. At times the town fined us for letting things become so unruly. Things were unruly in our neighborhood in those late 60s, early 70s years in State College. The Derrick twins, Karl and Mike, three houses down, had pet monkeys that they let out to roam on weekends. The little monkeys scaled telephone poles and scampered down the wires visiting our back porch. Someone would eventually call the police, who would watch the monkeys with us and say, quite simply, “there’s not much we can do.” Down the road at Fairmount Park the Doucette boys, Marque and Phil, were figuring out how to decode the combination of the lock on the box. That gray metal box contained all that young college students used to entertain local kids during the day: paper and crayons, basketballs and baseball bats. The Doucette boys spent hours in their devious work until that lock finally popped open. Our fun at the park was bracketed by what we found in town, the lava lamps that mesmerized us or flopping about on the water beds for sale at People’s Nation, which later became People’s Bank on Allen street.
We had a push mower, and usually by the time we were fined the grass was so long my sister Becky and I weren’t strong enough to get the mower through. So my father would emerge from his book lined office and heave his six foot four frame against the push mower to make a dent in the tangle.
One summer I took things in hand. There was a tall stalk, spikey and tenacious growing along the strip of grass that edged the sidewalk. It did not simply pull out like other weeds, so I took shovel and clippers and hammered away at it for twenty minutes, ensuring it would not grow. When I was done I reported my success to my father who was sitting in his study behind his big oak desk, lost in words.
“You cut that?” he asked, not even trying to hide his dismay.
A silence fell over us.
“I wanted to see what that would become. I was hoping it would bloom.”
I was hoping it would bloom. Thirty years later that strip of grass between sidewalk and street was a riot of bloom. Once my father retired, the raggedy lawn all but disappeared in the interest of his Peony bushes, his irises in blues, yellows and a burnt gold, his daffodils and tulips. The same man who had cultivated his weeds now cultivated roses with wonderful names like Bibi Mazoon. When I visited State College in the summers my mother would have to wait to greet me as my father insisted I inhale the scent of flowers, admire the blaze of colors. He would crouch to lift a leaf showing me the jack-in-the pulpit hidden near the rock wall. “Look,” he would say delighted by the mystery of his plants. We would take long drives to neighboring towns to vast nurseries and return with a trunk of new plants. Once my mother died in 2005, my father’s passion for the garden expanded, if that was possible, every corner and nook holding a gem; at any time of the summer something was in riotous bloom.
It was this garden he left behind when he died so suddenly of a heart attack on April 1, 2007. And it was this garden that neighbors rallied to maintain while my sister and I pondered what to do, never wanting to let go of the rambling yellow and brick house that held so many memories. The neighbors who came to pull weeds and make order were new neighbors, though they had lived there for a dozen years, the Ryans who had bought what I will always think of the Schlow House and Tom and Claire from next door who made the Smith’s house their home. Close friends Jim and Christy Rambeau and Sandy Stelts and Ron Fillipelli from across Foster Ave. also joined the gardeners. It was Ron’s lasagna we found in the fridge when my sister Becky and I arrived shortly after our father’s death. Jim, Ron and my father, who all taught at Penn State, formed what they laughingly called the Cartel. They shared a new power mower, a ladder and other garden materials between them and once a year met over a nice meal to discuss the maintence of their tools and to review new purchases. Really, it was a good reason to share a martini.
Complete strangers to me also came to our Saturday weeding events. There were folks who had stopped to admire flowers and had struck up a friendship with my father; he was easy going and loved to tell stories and loved to show off his flowers. I made up t-shirts for everyone: Tom Rogers Garden Brigade. And on the back: It takes neighbors to keep a garden.
My sister and I couldn’t keep the house; she lives and teaches in Paris, France, and I live and teach in the Hudson Valley of New York. When we began the painful process of emptying the house, it was those boys from Fairmount Park of so many years ago who showed up like miracles at our door to lift and toss, to repair and help us make decisions. Joe, Phil and Paul hauled out years of our lives from the basement where we’d all played murder in the dark and shared our first young kisses. We marveled at the unicycle, which my sister could still ride, the pogo stick, and Phil made us laugh when he said, “Your Dad was the best, he served me my first martini.”
I have never thought of myself as a Pennsylvanian, though my parents moved from Chicago to State College in 1961, the year I was born, so that my father could teach creative writing at Penn State. I graduated from State High, then from Penn State in 1983. Still, my sense of Pennsylvania-ness never bloomed. I also did not feel like I was a State College resident, a town always in flux with students and faculty coming and going. Writing this now I realize that what I do identify with is that neighborhood, now referred to as the Highlands. It was that sense of belonging with the kids at the park (we have our own Facebook page to reminisce!), it was Jud coming over after school to join us while we did our homework, it was Ron and Sandy celebrating with us when my father’s third novel was published. Where we are from matters in a mobile world, and though I’ll probably never say, “I’m a Highlander,” it’s good to be able to say, I grew up in the Highlands.
Susan Fox Rogers followed in her father’s footsteps both teaching and writing. She teaches writing at Bard College; her first book is My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org