My grandfather’s small frame house backed up to the railroad tracks. A stone’s throw away, up a high embankment, freight trains sparked and rumbled past the back of his house at all hours of the day and night. The front of the house faced a neglected city park, cropped green sometimes, but in the summer, burnt crunchy by the Texas sun and filled with spiny mesquite climbing trees, scrubby bushes and dilapidated playground equipment. A wood post and wire fence separated the house from the park. Not that you could tell what the fence was made of, it was submerged in mounds of yellow honeysuckle; just as the tin storage sheds to the right of the house were buried in a verdant tangle of bugle vines, exploding with bright orange, trumpet-shaped blooms. The house was framed on the left by mulberry trees that dropped messy black and red fruit in the summer; berries so tart and sweet that they made you pucker and laugh at the same time. Old crepe myrtles filled the big side yard, dripping shreds of bark to reveal slender trunks smooth and soft as a child’s arms and crowned with branches rioting with curly red flowers. The entire house seemed to be cooking in a delicious soup of bountiful earthiness.
My family lived with my grandfather for a year in 1965 while my father was stationed in Thailand. I was eight. My grandfather (Pawpaw we called him, after an old folk song he taught us …”Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch…”) was a retired construction worker who now made his spending money by doing yards for ladies from his church. Dressed in khaki work clothes and his green construction hard hat, he mowed their lawns, tended their flower beds and made hanging baskets for their trees. Logically then, he had green houses attached to the sides and back of the house. Pawpaw built them solidly on wooden frames and carefully covered each one in the spring with thick, cloudy plastic.
These greenhouses were magical places for me. Doors with spring-hinges kept the humidity tight inside and when you opened the door, the smell of soft, rich earth, like the forest floor, would wash over you. I had never smelled anything like it. A potting bench against the wall held loads of dark soil, mixed with compost, moss and silvery scales of vermiculite. Moist and deep, it harbored slick, pink earthworms and on one occasion, a possum that dug in to hibernate over the winter. Pawpaw carefully uncovered it so I could see its homely face, then covered it back up. The oxygen-rich atmosphere of the greenhouse made my sister and I a little giddy and we ran around investigating all the plants in the rows of flats, asking interminable questions and generally getting in the way. My grandfather patiently showed us how to root cuttings and how to tell when a plant was thirsty. My favorite time was helping him make hanging baskets; wire rims filled with sphagnum moss, each little plant tucked carefully in an arrangement only he could see in his head. Rows of these baskets hung from the ceiling dripping water on my head during the heat of the day. Wandering Jew, spider plants, leafy ferns filled basket after basket, which I would sometimes help him deliver in his beat up truck.
We had a game, my sister and I, after it rained and the water collected on the top of the plastic sheeting of the greenhouses; of taking sticks and lifting the top of the greenhouse cover and watching the water run down the sides of the plastic. We had been sternly warned not to do this and disaster struck once when we poked a hole in the top of the greenhouse plastic with a stick. I remember the whipping my mother gave us, but Pawpaw just smiled stoically as he recovered the greenhouse. I loved the greenhouses, especially at night, when heated by a small sputtering gas stove and lit by a bare bulb hanging from the frame, they became a stage, a cave or the forest of my dreams. Sometimes still I dream of the greenhouses and awake in my bed to the smell of rich earth, starched khakis and the laughter of my Grandfather ringing in my ears.