I turned 50 last June; my childhood home is actually two years older. My parents moved from Wilmington NC to Jacksonville FL in 1959 when the Seaboard Coastline Railroad transferred its headquarters “down south”.
They bought this 3 bedroom, 2 bath ranch home for about $10,000 if I remember correctly. As you can see in these photos, it boasted a pretty standard, pretty barren suburban front (and back) yard. That wouldn’t last very long. My father had the gift of a green thumb. Not just a pale minty green, but the deep rich green of collards and fig leaves and honeysuckle vines – all of which came to grow on that tract yard with a controlled abandon.
Our front yard boasted a ligustrum hedge, the shape of which was maintained to within an inch of its life with a plumb level and a pair of hedge trimmers you could probably have used to cut diamonds. On the side of the house grew enormous poinsettia hedges at least 14 feet high. For people in Northern climates who only see poinsettias at Giant around Christmas time, this would have been a revelation. They were a vivid red that matched the PF Flyer sneakers I wore to tear around the yards.
The front yard also had crape myrtles with their dark pink flowers, an azalea hedge (also dark pink) along the front porch, forsythia bushes en mass along the far side of the house (they matched the color of paint chosen for the home), a huge magnolia tree (I remember the lemony-scented blossoms drooping in the hot summer sun), and a paw paw palm tree. It was the perfect yard for hide-and-seek.
The back yard was not neglected either; more crape myrtles, a back hedge of ligustrum (perfect for hiding away from a pesky younger brother), alocasia (elephant ears), a banana tree (that actually bore bananas!) and a fig tree. The most astounding area, though, was under my parents’ bedroom window. Here were planted honeysuckle, night-blooming jasmine, mock orange, gardenias and camellias. It was truly an allergy-sufferer’s idea of Hell on earth, but my mother adored it. When the windows were open on a summer night, the smell was lush and voluptuous.
We also had a vegetable garden where my dad grew collards and tomatoes and cucumbers and runner beans and the hot peppers he loved. There was a box turtle in residence as well; we saved her from certain death trying to cross Old Kings Road.
I have only a few photos of the landscaping during the time I lived in the house, but the vivid colors and scents of the trees and flowering plants are alive and still flourish in my memory.
My father and I were never close. He had a volatile temper and never really wanted children. My mother, who wasn’t able to have children, wanted them desperately. So in 1961 and 1963, respectively, my parents adopted me and my brother. When my mother died in 1976, my father was left “holding the bag”, so to speak, and his Prussian methods of discipline soon slid into abuse, which I escaped when I left for the University of Florida on my 18th birthday.
He did give me my love of gardening and all things green. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always had something green and alive around me. There is nothing more relaxing or renewing than the smell of good soil and when it’s combined with the sharp scent of herbs or the funny nose-wrinkling odor of tomato plants, it’s just my idea of total Nirvana. That part of my father will always be with me, and I am glad that it overshadows the negative.
I visited my old home when I was back in Florida in 2009 for my 30 year class high school reunion. The subsequent owners (my dad moved from there in the late 1980s) have more or less decimated the landscaping to where it almost looks like 1961 again, and although the ligustrum hedge is gone, the memory of a suburban childhood spent in the good company of nature and a yard of wonder will remain with me forever.