Brigitte Bowers: Endless yard work, projects worth it?

April 5, 2013 

My husband Matt is a teacher, and this year he stocked up on science-fiction paperbacks in anticipation of spring break. He imagined seven days of reading and relaxing. But I am a teacher, too, and I had other plans for our spring break.

Last Saturday, Matt woke up ready to escape into a 30th century world of large-breasted women wielding ray guns and wearing thigh-high boots. Instead, he got a 21st century woman, and she was wielding pruning shears and a rake. This woman was not concerned about an invasion of aliens. She was determined instead to attack the jasmine vines in the backyard.

"Do we have to?" he asked. "It's a bigger job than you think."

"It'll only take a few hours. You'll be glad once it's done," I told him. "Trust me. I'll hold the ladder."

He sighed and put the book down, and for the rest of the day we hacked our way through jasmine vines -- a harder task than I realized -- and then moved on to pruning the drake elm. When we were finally done, we sat on the patio watching the sun go down.

"Aren't you glad we did that?" I asked. "Doesn't it look better?"

Matt glanced up from his book. "I guess. Until it grows back in about a month."

I sipped my Guinness and studied the old potting table on the patio. The wood was rotting and the hinges weren't holding. "We really need to haul that old potting table to the dump," I said. "And the screened area off the bathroom is a mess."

"Do you have any idea how heavy that table is? And if we take down the screening, how will we keep the bathroom cool in summer? Do you remember how hot it used to be in there?"

"I remember," I lied. "But the screen looks pretty bad."

We used a sledge hammer to tear apart the potting table. Disassembling the screen took most of Sunday. On Monday, there was a trip to the dump to unload the potting table and the screen's scaffolding. We brought back a yard of compost for the tomato garden, which needed weeding, and, since the garden was next to the pond, we pruned back the bamboo.

By Tuesday, Matt was looking forward to a dentist appointment, which, while potentially painful, would at least provide a half-day's respite from yard work.

As soon as he got up on Wednesday, he said, "I've got to go to the hardware store for some bolts. I'll be back in a few hours." He thought I did not notice that he was carrying his book as he dashed to the car.

Some people are content to read while sitting on a couch strewn with unfolded clothes or to make a sandwich in a kitchen where dirty dishes are piled in the sink. But I always notice the crooked pillow and misplaced chair that do not belong on the cover of a home-decorating magazine. As long as the dream of perfect domesticity exists somewhere, I cannot help but pursue it.

Recently, my eldest son speculated about the house he will own one day. "I think it'll be a character home," he said, thereby informing me how deeply "House Hunters" has insinuated itself into my family.

"Well," I answered, "you don't have to own a home. Home ownership ties you down in a lot of ways. Maybe it's best to just live in an apartment in a city."

But he wasn't convinced. "I think I'll probably want a house in the suburbs," he said.

I worried about his future then. While I have chosen home ownership for myself, I am not sure it is the life I want for my kids -- so many hours and weeks spent tending to projects that offer no lasting reward. Someday I will move away from my home, or die in it, and the jasmine will take over again, and the weeks I might have spent enjoying things just as they are will be long gone. My children, though, can't really see this. They only see that the jasmine is cleared, that the suburbs are calm. They believe in the myth of perfect domesticity.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.

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