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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The big dirt pile




The fact that my husband and I are writers preceded us when we moved into our new neighbourhood. (By the way, I can be forgiven for the Canadian spelling because I am Canadian. Besides, this isn’t a book.) I must admit I had no idea the expectations would be so high. Two of them were waiting for us in our driveway, the lone girl-- a five-year old-- astride a pink Barbie bicycle with training wheels, the other-- six-and-three-quarters-- on hot wheels loaded with stickers. “We hear you write for kids,” the owner of the hot wheels shouted, squinting at the sun. “I guess that means you like kids.”

Kids! Of course I like kids! And when was the last time I lived beside a family with kids? This would be terrific. Before, we were surrounded by cows, and before that, I was the only person on my street not collecting social security. And way before that, it was condo living on a floor with couples who chose not to have kids. So, this was really something.
The knocks came rapidly to see what we were really made of.

“Do you write and draw the pictures too? I’m a writer and an artist. See?” He’s got a paper bag over his eight-year-old hand and is moving it with his fingers. “I made it. Would you like to buy it? It’s only 50 cents.”

“What part of it did you make?” my husband asks him. So he flees.

Into our backyard. He squashes his face against the basement window and peers inside.

“There’s ghosts in there!” he hollers to the rest of the kids, who shriek with glee.

“It’s just laundry hanging up to dry,” I yell back. But the kids come running anyway. “Oh,” they moan. “You sure?”

Turns out what they’re really trying to assess is if we’ll let them play in our backyard. And for how often. And if it’s for always or not. It’s the most important part of who we are, according to the neighbourhood kids. A free-wielding, open space, unfenced and forbidden by their parents-- unless we say it’s okay. Our backyard’s been carefully charted out the past few years while the previous owners were at work. Trees were climbed and bark that wasn’t supposed to be peeled, peeled. It’s been a haven for candy dum-dums wrapped up again for future use and stuck sucker-side down in the dirt. I’ve found lucky bottle caps, keys, marshmallows, airplanes, soccer balls and dirty diapers along its perimeter.

“They’re not dirty diapers,” the seven-year-old tells me. “They’re swimmers. There’s no poop in them.”

But there was a problem stinkier than poop. A tree stump rotting in the middle of our yard, waiting to claim a three-year-old’s ankle or, at the very least, his sneaker.

“But, this is our stump,” they told me. “My dad said so.”

The stump grinder people came earlier than I expected-- before school. Early enough for all the boys to watch it get crushed robotically into a pulverized pile of mulch. They said it would only take 20 minutes to get it down to nothing, but I didn’t stay to watch. I knew the boys were eyeing it all from their bedroom windows and I felt evil. While the deed was being done, I cowered over to the coffee shop and sniffled, staying there until I knew they’d be at school. I was doomed. The unwanted neighbour. I had one were I grew up. They never gave out Halloween candy and shut their lights off when they saw us coming.

The next morning, there was something in my mailbox from the kids. They’d written me a story. About how much they’d loved that old stump, and how it became a dirt pile and how much they love playing in that dirt pile. The following weekend, with snow shovels and dust pans, the boys helped me take some of that dirt across to another part of the backyard, to the garden, where the swimmers and the dum-dums once hid.