“Everything was large and bright in your backyard, even the gray cement patio from which you had snowball fights.” Don’t Think: Stories by Richard Burgin
A memory of my backyard. Arthur Panaro
Everything was large and bright in my backyard… the last standing Seckel pear tree from the old farm orchard that once was there, now divided into 50 by 100 foot lots, one of which my parents bought to build our dream house. In our first years on that land, we harvested the pears until it came time to cut down the tree which had finally come to its end.
My sister Elissa remembers: “I loved that Seckel pear tree and the fruit it bore. I so recall us playing hide and seek and using the tree as our base to count out the numbers while we ran around and hid, playing hide and seek when our cousins Michael and Joseph would come and visit us. I also hid some penny candy, purchased from our run down to Peppers store, in the nook of the pear tree one night. The next morning I went to rescue my treasure of sweets only to open up a bag that now contained a thousand ants. I was horrified and so disappointed that I could not enjoy the sweets on my tongue.”
The severely weathered old farm house survived a block away, facing on to Philadelphia Pike, and was inhabited by a family with a couple of brothers I used to play with. Strange, I recall that one early evening, after a snow storm, I took a hike around the block and passing that old house I could hear, in the stillness that descends after snow, those brothers roughhousing it. A pang of envy shot through me.
It was not long before the old farm house, like the Seckel pear tree, came to its end and was demolished. It was replaced by an auto parts store. How could it not have been so. Philadelphia Pike was a prime commercial route.
The brick patio in our back yard, the center being set in a basket weave pattern, edged with a two brick set in herringbone brick pattern, was all designed and built by my father, Carmen Arthur Panaro. There was a two foot retaining wall that ran the length of the patio and garden patches on either side of the patio. The wall was split in the middle with two steps that got you down to the lower yard and a walkway of, again, basket weave pattern bricks leading to a circle of brick work upon which sat a bird bath of terrazzo made by my maternal grandfather, Lionello Mattei, stone mason, born in Tuscany.
Where did all the bricks come from? Carmen would periodically collect them and get them into the trunk of his car. Where was he finding them? Bricks began to be used for sidewalks as far back as 1870. Wilmington had its share, and they were being torn up to be discarded and replaced with cement. They were there for the taking, and Carmen rescued them for this patio extravaganza.
Elissa: “Many memories come to my mind of awaking to the sound of a tap tap tap which was Carmen laying brick after brick into one of his intricate patio patterns. And yes, you are correct about Carmen coming home on many a Saturday with a trunk of discarded bricks from the Wilmington city streets, and a bag of rye loaves of bread from the Polish Bakery.”
That tap tap tap that Elissa refers to needs a little more description. That was Carmen, dad, as Elissa says, on his knees in sand, looking neither to left nor right, concentrating, meditating, selecting each brick. He set it into a tight and solid fit. He gripped the hammer head of a short handed sledge hammer and used the knob end of the wooden handle to push sand under each brick repeatedly and forcefully. This went on with brick after brick until the wood of the handle end became a splayed, fibrous stub. For some reason that stub end of the wood still lives in my mind.
He used a level so that the whole expanse of the geometry of the bricks formed a even plane. Carmen Arthur Panaro was a perfectionist.
Bricks, fired red clay bricks, and cement—Roman opus caementicium—were part of our heritage as a family of contractors. Elissa reminds me that a great pile of bricks had been unloaded onto a lot, one lot over from ours. Uncle Arnold, our family contractor, was preparing to build there the home of maternal aunt Rose and husband Uncle Bill and cousin Kathy. That pile sat through a summer season and became overgrown with black berry trailing vines. Elissa and I would harvest and snack on the biggest, juiciest black berries ever. We had to climb the unsteady pile and avoid the black berry thorns. Now I am wondering if those berries were the offspring of the farming times that once upon a time happened there.
The stones of the retaining wall (I referred to above) that divided the patio from the lower yard were from two large, rounded boulders, maybe four to five feet tall, that had been unearthed when the cellar of our home was dug. They had been resting, maybe from ice age times, lodged within the red clay subsoil below the farmable top soil of the old farmstead. The bulldozing men had discarded, if that is the word, the boulders onto the red mud of what was to become our front lawn. The contractor, it so happens, was my uncle, Arnold Mattei, son of Lionello and Dolores.
How did the boulders get to be the rocks in the patio retaining wall? Here’s how. It was winter, and by now myself, my sister Elissa, and my mother Esther, were living in the new home. Our baby brother, Adrian, was yet to join with us a few years later at our home on Monterey Place, town of Bellefonte, New Castle County, Delaware.
Carmen, the ever busy, efficient Capricorn-born man that he was, set to work on many a Saturday and Sunday, building wood fires at the base of those huge boulders. The heat of the fires mingled with the chill air of the winter, and this had some alchemical effect on the atomic structure of those boulders. And Carmen, knowing the exact magical moment to strike, would swing a long handled sledge hammer, in such a way, at those boulders that they shattered, layer after layer, into chucks. As a new raw layer of stone was revealed, the fire was again set against the stone until the next prime moment to strike arrived, and Carmen would strike the blow.
The gradually rising pile of rocks was then transported by wheelbarrow by Carmen to the patio area, ready to be set in concrete as a low wall. Carmen loved stone walls, and when he and Esther visited me in Santa Fe, he never failed to remark about the many stone walls that have been set up here.
AND A LITTLE MORE…
Esther Panaro, mom, complimented the patio with her wonderful talent with flowers. When she and Carmen would visit Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, in the Brandywine Creek Valley, Esther took notes and reproduced many of the plantings at home. She especially loved zinnias, portulaca, daisies, African violets, and red geraniums, and of course petunias—all nestled in baby’s breath. Esther’s earthy flowers were the organic feminine floating around the edge of Carmen’s masculine brick and stone sculpture. In the lower yard she planted tomatoes, peppers, onions, and salad greens, so we had fresh produce at home.
One topic of discussion with Esther was that she felt that nature and gardens were a source of spiritual strength for her after all.