Home & Design

Green Acre #55: Life and Death at the Edge of the Sidewalk

A deep pink Knock Out rose is flanked by a pair of hostas and surrounded by ivy. / Stephanie Cavanaugh.

WHATCHA DOIN’ there, Greg?” Bob said, chuckling to himself as he hovered over the bent back of the man I usually call My Prince. “Buildin’ my coffin?” He was missing a few talking teeth, so this was a little mumbled.

“It’s a planter,” Greg said through a mouthful of nails, hammering away. “A flower box.”

“What you need that for? We got flower boxes.“

Which was and was not true. One morning, 30-some years ago, we suddenly noticed black tires sawed in half, with jagged points along the rims, lining the sidewalk. One for each house, marching down the block. There was some manner of dirt in them, and a straggly clutch of flowers. I don’t recall what. Possibly marigolds.

It was a school project, we found out. Announced with some pride. Beautifying the neighborhood. The kids had made them, which made our hearts ache, they were so horrible. We didn’t have the strength to remove them, at least right away.

A year or so passed, which brings us to the sidewalk coffin. But first . . .

A retired plasterer, Bob had lived on our block for who knows how many years, in a house identical to ours, but different in the way these old row houses on Capitol Hill morphed over the decades, some restored and becoming cool, some not.  (Still having individual rooms and a marked absence of granite, we’re now among the not cool).

Bob was old, though he may well have been younger than we are now. He was hobbled and wrinkled but always cheerful, always willing to lend a hand. As long as the arthritis let him.  

As opposed to his wife, Esther, a shrewish woman who never talked to us directly. They had a son, who we knew only as “boy,” though he was about our age, early 30s at the time. “Boy!” Esther would bellow from the front or back porch, “Boy! You come in here now, it’s time to eat.” Or time for whatever else she had in mind for him. Back then he’d be known as “simple.” I never heard him speak.

Boy helped his dad, trying to learn a trade rapidly being replaced by wallboard. The two  expertly plastered our cracked bedroom ceiling and a soft spot in the hallway, while Greg watched and learned.

And then My Prince built the planter. It’s pine, I suppose, and I suppose I could verify that but I don’t want him to know what I’m writing, so I won’t. He always has a correction or 10.  A box, about six feet long, four wide, three deep. Yep, looks like a coffin.

Over the years we’d try this and that and this and that, colorful cheap things like zinnias and cosmos, intended to loft themselves above the bed of ivy that we’d planted as filler. Cheap because up until about five years ago, chances were, whatever you planted would flee in the night, you learned fast around here.

Sadly, but appropriately, everything we’ve ever planted in the coffin died. Except the ivy, which spills over the sides and down to the pavers.  We blamed the giant, magnificent, elm—one of the grandest in the city, we’re told—that spreads a massive canopy each summer, filtering the sun.

Now that we’re a hoity-toity neighborhood of thousand-dollar baby buggies and $250-per-person dinners at Pineapple and Pearls, you’ll most likely hold on to your hosta.  So we upscaled our experiments, trying dinner-plate-sized hibiscus, angel trumpets, azaleas, in search of something that would grandly announce, We’re here.

Instead, one after the other struggled pathetically, withering, rotting, turning to brittle sticks. I would fool myself at first, assuming that whatever it was I planted was just settling in. I’d put my trembling eye to it each morning: What’s that! A new shoot?  But, no. It was just another plant dying.

Bob died too, though he was buried in a proper coffin. Soon after, Esther and Boy moved down south somewhere and other members of their extended family moved in. When they died or scattered, the house was gutted and gussied and bought by a French family. Alex plays the ukulele and sings Beatles songs on the front porch, which is neither here nor there.

I was dog-sitting last week, which is actually leading to a point. The dog in question decided to be incontinent all over our rugs. Turn around and she’d peed again, and stood glaring. Not sick, just . . . pissed.

The Knock Out rose in its coffin-shape flower box by the curb. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

After consulting with her parents, we took her home, none of us too pleased, but it was the only solution. We’d go over three times a day and walk her. And on these walks I noticed roses. Beautiful roses, pinks and reds and yellows, deeply scented and clambering along fences, up walls, some even under trees.

A rose for the coffin had not theretofore been a thought, so fragile was the dapple of sidewalk sun. But some roses have now been made close to iron-clad, they say.

Knock Out roses, which emerged several years ago, and of which I speak, are as close to a fake rose as one could wish. Perfectly boring, entirely scentless, but pretty blooms, flowering endlessly from early spring. They were, at first issue, only available in red. Now they’re offered in several shades, including a very deep pink, which goes particularly well with the gray-green of the house and the deep purple front door.

So we trucked over to Lowes where the large ones were on sale for $20—you don’t need a boutique garden center for these things, they’re common as dirt.  

And the Prince, yet again, improved the soil in the coffin and buried our new pet, flanking it with a pair of hostas that were also on sale. Even in its first moments (which might be its best moments) it is a charming sight.

I am, for the moment, content.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about gardening in her own personal patch of Washington DC. You can read her earlier columns by typing Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.

3 thoughts on “Green Acre #55: Life and Death at the Edge of the Sidewalk

  1. Maggie says:

    Laugh a sentence! With good info as punctuation…

  2. Bonnie Mitchell says:

    Yes – lovely, if scentless, image. I’m checking out Lowes tomorrow to see if I can find some Knock outs. I can’t keep a rose alive somehow. Does Alex sing Beatles well?

  3. Carol says:

    Ah…no scent, but a lovely sight, enhancing the truck and your sidewalk.
    Your writing always makes me smile, laugh or cry. Oh, that sounds a bit sassy. Mmmm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *