Essays / Features / Nonfiction

An Overgrown Life

by Anne Rudig

We’d rented a house we could never afford to buy in a Midwestern city that had been the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and a terminus of the Underground Railroad. Botanically, it’s a transitional zone: Magnolias grew here, but not one hour north; Michigan pines did well but withered south of the nearby river. We were lucky to live in a neighborhood with big yards and old trees. But it was transitional for us too. We were New Yorkers, touching down for a few years before getting ourselves jobs back in the city. Most of our neighbors worked at Procter & Gamble or General Electric. 

Our yard looked like none other. We planted the flower beds next to our front door with weeds—a small act of aggression, perhaps. Milkweed and Joe Pye Weed, host plants to several kinds of butterflies, flourished there. Our wild plantings stood in contrast to the insect-free, tightly defined plots of petunias and Kentucky bluegrass of our neighbors.

My Madison Avenue job had evaporated when the ad agency shut its doors. My husband had left a major New York auction house when they eliminated his department. As we sat on our front porch with gin and tonics, we mused on our professional futures while viewing the neighborhood through our spikey front yard. A jack-o’-lantern from last Halloween had dropped some seeds on its way to the garbage can. Pumpkin vines reached across our lawn toward the street, flagrant proof we were unrepentant in how we presented ourselves.

The people on this street were well-off and liked to think they were in control. One neighbor filled her basement, floor to ceiling, with gallon jugs of water for Y2K. Another locked kids in a bedroom while she babysat them, “for safety.” The lady next door bought her bras one hundred at a time because, well, she could.

We were juggling our nine-to-fives with our artistic lives. We may have wished for some control, but seldom experienced it. That may have been another reason our garden was more live-and-let-live and less like a tidy daily planner.

At each cocktail hour we discussed our prospects—one of us could take a part-time gig and be home to greet the school bus by 2:30. The other might become a consultant, which meant lots of travel but also more money. Both promised slivers of time for music, scholarship, and writing.

Our neighbor emerged from his garage on a gleaming green mower to re-cut grass already clipped by the landscapers earlier in the day. We were impressed as he maneuvered expertly around his shrubs, sheared into disciplined shapes like ammunition stored near the base of his home. As bees and butterflies buzzed around our heads, we considered what to do next and what to plant, while he achieved a close cut.

Maybe Mr. Smythe simply liked getting out of the house. His wife seemed nice enough, but sometimes we’d hear her shout out the top of her BMW convertible as she sailed by—“I have vertigo!”

Well of course you do, I’d think. You’re driving up the street in reverse in the wrong lane. Our neighbors may have maintained smooth façades, but their quirks expressed themselves anyway. We all have an overgrown life somewhere inside.

All summer Mr. Smythe arrived home from work as a senior middle-manager, donned his orange jumpsuit and mowed. Sometimes we’d find ourselves shouting over our drinks as evening fell. But we liked to think we were tolerant so we didn’t complain. With no desire to compete, we did not become fierce mowers ourselves. Maybe that’s why we didn’t last long in the suburbs.

“What do you think?” my husband asked one evening as the pumpkins ripened on our lawn. “Is he mowing away from something, or toward it?”

I took a sip of my cocktail. “Perhaps it’s a primordial need for the intoxicating mixture of gas and grass.”

My husband nodded. “And the roar of a two-stroke engine.”

More likely, it was an expression of manhood otherwise suppressed by corporate life and a big honking mortgage.

By the following Christmas, we’d headed back East.

We live in a different neighborhood now, in a dying mill town full of lowered expectations. We’ve shed our big jobs, our kids are grown. We moved around quite a bit, managing to hold onto our artistic DNA, hauling too many books and musical instruments wherever we went. We chased higher salaries and better school districts, like the good suburbanites we tried to be.

The street we live on used to be the boulevard of the rich a hundred years ago. The village, settled along the hills above the Naugatuck River, was the birthplace of abolitionist John Brown and Naugahyde®. The old homes are in varying states of repair. The same goes for the yards. The man across the street clips his two-story hedges while standing on a library ladder with a power saw. Up the road they’ve allowed their evergreens to grow for so long their house has been swallowed, like a witch’s cottage in the woods. Eccentrics are welcome here because there are few appearances to keep up. One of my neighbors flew at me in a rage because she thought a leaf blower was traumatizing her chickens. I like her chickens, so I heard her out, though I suspect the circling  large red-tailed hawk is more traumatic.

Half a dozen shuttered factories dot this town—it’s not a stretch to imagine the toxic residue beneath the ground. After three years of seeding and feeding, we still have brown patches in the grass. I thought of digging it all up and tossing wildflower seeds, but they probably won’t thrive either. Yet I want to leave this damaged place better than I found it.

I planted Orange Russians and Polish Giants—my tomatoes. All the pollinators arrived—shiny blue-black wasps, honeybees, hummingbirds. A jackrabbit lurks beneath my gangly hostas, the first suspect when the parsley disappeared. Then I came face to face with the real culprit, a woodchuck. Now we hurl over-ripe eggplants out to the end of the yard where he waits. He looks like one of my kids’ long-departed guinea pigs, writ large.

The bear, though, that’s a different story.

He tore at the lattice on a nearby basement, then sauntered into our yard where he glugged the contents of a hummingbird feeder, chewed it to pieces, and threw it over his shoulder. Strolling over to my neighbor’s patio, he had a moment of R&R before noticing the aroma from the assisted living facility—bacon for breakfast. He hopped over the sharp prongs on the wrought-iron fence like it was nothing. Several elderly ladies with walkers hot-footed it back inside.

We’ve finally landed where we belong.

Many here are self-employed—caregivers, artists, landscapers, house painters. No suburbanites, at least until very recently. You can get a four-bedroom antique house with enough yard for flowers and a bear for not much money.

We’re nowhere near the train line. That used to guarantee that our pleasant existence would remain uninterrupted by petunia-growers and insect-haters. Now I fear an invading swarm of senior middle-managers in orange jumpsuits with bra-hoarding wives. Perhaps we’ve escaped the neatnik neighborhood only to have our unruly lives thwarted by post-pandemic migration. Mr. Smythe probably mowed his way through Covid while his wife, like many women, abandoned her bra. She may have flung it out the top of her convertible while driving backwards. That thought makes me a little nostalgic, but it doesn’t last. I’m protective of what I’ve got growing here. The man with the library ladder and power saw probably feels the same way.

Before we landed where our overgrown lives could bloom, we had to learn a lesson: You can’t be who you are not. Seems obvious enough, but as soon as you have kids, you start to do things you wouldn’t have done otherwise. At least we did. We took jobs with good salaries until the environments became poisonous. My husband left work in Chicago one day, drove five hours home to announce his boss was wanted by Interpol. Mine was sent home for misconduct two weeks after he fired me. Those jobs bought us a place in inhospitable neighborhoods so our kids could go to good schools. Later we discovered our son was bullied every day at one of those schools. The beatings stopped after he grew a beard and achieved over six feet in height.

We wanted our kids’ lives to be better than ours—the middle class dilemma. A Stanford study states that 90% of kids born in the 1940s earned more than their parents. That dropped to 50% by the 1980s. I can only guess what the number is now. I took the fattest carrots dangled and hoped for the best, losing touch with what really mattered. The workplace ejected me. I’m forever grateful.

There is no work-life balance. There is simply life. You only get one. Maybe this is what Anne Lamott means when she writes that she is unemployable. I used to laugh at that. How could anyone afford such a luxury? You get up and go to work. Now I understand what she meant.

Many in our hamlet are unemployed, different from being unemployable. I drove past a peeling multi-family home in need of a roof the other day. Out front, six varieties of lettuces were thriving. Those brilliant leaves will brighten dinners, improve digestion, and reward careful tending, no matter what the grower’s work-life throws at them. A garden is a small patch of self-determination when all else goes haywire.

Once our kids were out on their own, we left the scorched porch and found our place among the butterflies and dead factories. It’s a good place to practice renewal—both habitat and personal. Luring living things back into our recovering yard has been more satisfying than any of the striving I’ve done professionally. Maybe the aftermath of the pandemic will provide others with a path to an overgrown life too.

In my usual unruly fashion, I’ve left the dead hollyhocks intact to provide nourishment for birds over winter. Milkweed pods have exploded, spreading their seeds for spring. We’ve tidied up most of the maple leaves, leaving some to provide cover for insects and other small creatures when it snows. A few nights ago, a coyote sauntered down the middle of our street at 3 am, perhaps hoping for chickens. The surprises I encounter in the garden delight me. Those in the workplace did not. Everything I had to offer at work didn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things. At the time, that made me sad and angry. Now the grand scheme is here, right in front of me, every day.

Anne Rudig was born in San Francisco, grew up in the Bay Area, and received a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley before moving to New York to pursue a career in dance. After several years of performing, she graduated from Parsons School of Design, became an art director/copywriter, and worked on Madison Avenue. Anne paused her career to stay home with her young children before spending twenty more years in advertising, eventually serving as Director of Communication for the Episcopal Church worldwide.

In 2018 Anne received an MFA from Columbia and wrote about her experiences there in a piece for The New York Times, “Back to School, at 64.” Her work has appeared in several literary journals and she has completed a memoir. Like many other adoptees, her original birth certificate was sealed. Recently her essay “I’d Like to Know Who My Parents Are” ran in The Guardian.

Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “An Overgrown Life

  1. Absolutely beautiful! I would love to have her living next door to me. I, too, can spend hours watching bumble and other bees and not feel restless or bored. After years of “wild” gardening, I am finding toads hiding in leaf mulch and hopping through creeping charlie. One recent revelatory observation was bees drinking from a birdbath. Who knew?

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