Of all my happiest memories, the garden of the house my grandparents lived in when I was growing up, is the place I remember with the most peace and joy. Oaklands. I spent weeks there, most often the only grandchild staying, caught up in a private, solitary world of my own imagination. I was the first grandchild, so I had the distinction of being the person who ‘owned’ the swing which was put up for me and who had my own cupboard filled with special things to play with and fiddle about with. I was also, of my siblings, the one most capable of occupying myself within my head; endless hours on the path with coloured water and jar and jugs, endless hours floating leaves and twigs down the shallow stream in the front garden, endless hours staring up at the pines in the front garden, collecting berries from bushes and stones and leaves and oddments for games that went on for days and days.
Inside the house where my room, precociously picked when I was five and laid claim to on the day they moved in, had my cupboard, was a mixture. There was sprigged and airy rooms and their were rooms that still held the furniture they had bought with hard earned money when they first moved from Ireland to England, chasing the tantalising dream of a future in a professional world that offered more than the docks of Belfast. That furniture was not like furniture I know today – I’ve done my fair share of indulging in dark and solid oak furniture like this these last few years; it was glossy and veneered and filled with swirled patterns that glinted and glared at me in the dim shadows of bedtime. I loved the house; it is still the place I dream of when I dream of being a child. I can still remember the ridges and bumps of wardrobe and dresser and vanity cabinet. I can still trail my hand on the bannister and remember the knots and turns, I can still reach out and touch the texture of the wood chipped walls and the plush patterned carpets are as familiar now as they ever were, even after 20 years away. If I could magic myself to any house at any cost, I think I would choose to live there. It was – seemed – perfect.
The front garden was a place of light and height, the house of comfort and company but it was the back garden where I went on my most wonderful adventures, where I felt clothed and cocooned and precious. The back garden was lined with trees, Rhododendrons on one side and Oaks, beautiful, ageing Oaks, on the other. The earth, sucked dry of moisture by the thirsty roots of the towering trees, lay baked and packed tight beneath my feet. Grey from the years, decades, of powdered branches, leaves and acorns that had rained down on it, it was at once rich and parched. Oaks leave nothing beneath them; there was little room for lawn or weeds, just a spattering of stunted grassy patches, with only the hardy nettles and determined daffodils flourishing each year. Handfuls of gnarled and knobbly twigs in my hands, throwing them into the wire burner each Autumn, mixed with crunchy, browning leaves that smoked and swirled as we worked. The daffodils already poking through ready to flower again in Spring.
Unconsciously, having linked daffodils so firmly into my mind with my lost son, I seem to have assigned him Oak trees too. When he died I started to make trees, seek out trees, buy trees, plant trees, wear trees. Somewhere along the line they became Oaks and I wear an acorn, beautifully made from glass, around my neck in his memory.
It seems right. It seems like human nature to look for links and put events in order and tie off ends and make some sense. I can imagine him there, in that garden, with the daffodils and the oaks.