Some years ago, as a young man, I visited a friend who lived in a small town in the South. We'd served in the Army together. My friend and his wife had two young children and some days I'd baby sit them as they played in their vast backyard.
An old homemade fence separated my friend's yard from that of his neighbor. As we didn't know much about the neighbor, who had never made any overtures of getting to know my friend and his family, I told the children always to respect our neighbor's privacy and property.
I've always loved gardening. Part of the reason is that my Hungarian-immigrant parents always had a large garden (vegetables out of necessity and flowers for their beauty). So I offered to put in a garden for my friend and his wife.
They thought it was a great idea.
As I put in the garden, I took a quick survey of our neighbor's yard. The place looked rather wild. The yard appeared to be choked with grass, grass that hid broken chairs and other junk. The numerous birds in the yard seemed to indicate that at least the local wildlife was fond of this little jungle.
But first looks can often be deceiving. A longer look revealed that our elusive neighbor did, indeed, have some areas where the grass was cleared away. Peering over the fence (snooping, I guess), I noticed some very attractive flowers, some lush fruit trees, and other bushes and plants with their own unique qualities.
I even made out what appeared to be a small vegetable garden in a far corner of the yard.
Yes, on a second look, the neighbor's yard had a sort of primitive beauty.
One day, one of the children accidentally hit a ball across the fence that landed in the neighbor's tall grass.
"I'll get it," I said. "I don't want to alarm our neighbor, so I'll ask him if it's all right to come over."
I opened the makeshift gate and stopped just inside the other yard. "Hello!" I called out. "Anybody at home?"
A gopher or something scurrying through the grass startled me and I jumped. Just then a crackling voice came out from the shadows of a large oak.
"Who are you? What do you want?" the voice asked.
Squinting, I could make out the figure of an elderly gentleman slowly walking out into the sunshine.
"What do you want?" he asked again. Then he cried out, "Hey, now, be careful there - you almost stepped on some willows I planted there!"
Alarmed, I looked at my feet. Sure enough, I saw some willow seedlings there. Then I began explained my reason for being in his yard. "The children -"
"That's OK," he interrupted me. "No harm done."
Now that he was fully out in the sunshine, I momentarily studied our neighbor. I couldn't tell his age. He could have been anywhere from 70 to 90. He had snow-white hair. His leathery face had a strong and honest quality to it. A battered old hat shielded him from the hot southern sun.
Then I left to take the ball back to my friend's yard. As much as I wanted to talk to the neighbor, to get to know him better, I didn't want to push things. I'd noticed that he worked mostly in his yard in the cool hours of the early morning or just before sunset.
"Them cukes could use a little shade," I heard a voice from across the fence one morning. "A cool spot by the fence would be ideal."
It was our elderly neighbor. He wasn't as grumpy as he first appeared, and I could see he wanted to talk. So did I. And talk we did, mostly about plants. He loved plants.
"I love to see things grow," he said quietly. "I guess some folks would say my yard is a bit messy. And it is. Know why?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. I guess because you like it like that."
He laughed. "Yah, that's about it. I like things looking kind of wild. It's kind of the way nature meant for them to be, in my way of thinking.
"Oh, I know where everything is," he continued, and I cultivate what I have to cultivate. But sometimes all some plants need is God's good soil, sunshine, and a lot of rain. With that, things will grow."
As we leaned on the old fence later on, I asked him if he'd like some lemonade. "Just made it," I said.
He gave a wrinkled smile and said, "Why, that would be right neighborly of you."
So we sat and talked some more. The next day he invited me over for some iced tea. It was delicious! We drank it in the cool of his tall shade trees. He had a rickety old swing built for two and we sat in that. Everything in the yard seemed to belong there - even this gentle gardener. He showed me around the yard, pointing out where everything was. I learned a lot about gardening and plants from him.
"You know," he said once, leaning against a fence post, "some of the neighbor kids are scared of me. They think I'm a mean old man. I'm not. I just don't like to have them in my yard 'cause they don't know where all my plants are."
We spent a wonderful summer sharing our love for growing things. When I left that autumn, the garden I'd begun was producing vegetables.
Our elderly neighbor's yard was full of life and rustic beauty that I had gotten used to and appreciated. I'll never forget that summer or that wonderful gentleman. It didn't matter that I was young, he was old; that I was white, and he was black, or that we had our own ideas: We both loved to see things grow.