It was a strange feeling as I hoisted a 10-pound sledge over my head and swung it down on the mortared rocks my grandfather had carefully laid by hand. Sparks and shards flew when I hit flint. Limestone crumbled, its weathered façade giving way to chalky white inside. Pappy’s strength, as well as his skill and obsession with building, were the stuff of family legend. And I was destroying something he made. Better me than a bulldozer.
Pappy and Grammy moved into this house in 1951, when it was the second one on the block and the road was “oiled” rather than paved. The man who owned the undeveloped lot next door knew my grandparents and sold it to them for a fair price. Though the neighborhood was mostly woods back then, their extra purchase proved visionary now that the trend is to build McMansions as close to the property line as allowed by law. At least realtors still recognize the value of preserving the canopy of old trees, as do Tampa’s tree protection ordinances.
Over the years, this double lot went through many changes. There was a grassy yard, a concrete pool and an outdoor kitchen — all built by my grandparents’ hands. They added on to the house, too. The carport where Pappy built boats became a kitchen and dining room. He then built a utility room, a library and a workshop. Meanwhile, the trees continued to grow and the rocks piled up.
Pappy dreamed of studying geology at a distant university, but decided to stick with a good job and proximity to friends and family in Tampa. His interests in minerals, fossils and artifacts were satisfied by family picnics, hunting and fishing trips, and long vacations out west in their camper. It seems everywhere they went, he had an eye for finding things like arrowheads and geodes. He found all kinds of rocks special and worthy of bringing home, sentimental reminders of their adventures.
He built display cases for the really neat stuff and loved to tell visitors about their origins, both natural and personal history. (My grandparents’ desire to educate and inspire lives on in their collections and carvings on display to Camp Bayou and Lettuce Lake Park.) Yet for all the beautiful things they found and made, most amazing to me is the story of how Pappy collected big chunks of limestone during riverside picnics.
Nevermind the risk of gators (he was bitten at least twice in his life): If Pappy spotted a rock he wanted from the far bank, he’d wrestle it into and across the river, sometimes wearing a mask and snorkel as he carried it underwater, then heave it into the trunk to be carried home and integrated with his ever-evolving landscape. Some of these rocks weigh hundreds of pounds.
I was flooded with memories of my grandparents and this yard as I tore apart an island of stone, soil and vegetation. It had become severely overgrown after Pappy died in 2008, and it felt only right that I should dismantle it by hand. I felt every blow of the sledgehammer in my core, a visceral and psychic connection of past, present and future. I imagined Pappy’s blood, sweat, grunts and curses as I let out my own in the hot sun and swirling dust. When I strained to move the biggest specimens for safe keeping, I marveled at what brawn he mustered to put them in place.
Pushing the wheelbarrow full of dirt, an old photograph of my brother and me happily riding inside with a grinning Pappy at the handles was constantly in my mind’s eye. When the wheelbarrow broke, I found what I needed to repair it in his old workshop: a sturdy piece of wood, a drawknife to carve a rounded handle, and old steel clamps to hold it in place while I fastened it with big screws. After a wrap in duct tape for good measure it was back in action with only a few minutes lost.
Most of the yard work I did was intentionally solitary, so I could let my mind wander while clearing brush and breaking rocks, unearthing roots entangled with cement blocks in a mound that had to go in order to release the potential I envisioned for the patio and yard. This kind of work is like meditation for me and its tangible results are immensely satisfying. I completely understand why Pappy was constantly at it, ushering the next evolution of his little oasis where family and friends gathered.
When I returned from Alaska in mid-September, I craved the physical and spiritual activity that hiking among mountains had provided. I’m not much of a runner and gyms bore me. Lacking reliable surf in this part of Florida, resurrecting the yard through a lot of hard labor was my answer.
I also had a month before a party I planned to host, and a few nice days hinting at fall weather convinced me that it should be a cookout in the yard. As the date drew closer, I enlisted the help of a few friends to load and haul away the piles of rocks, and to clear vines and other weeds from the patio area. In the final week, I had a local tree company deliver 12 cubic yards of wood chips that I spread on top of the bare soil.
Beautiful weather accompanied the Saturday of the party. It was a casual, intimate affair with a few of my closest friends. Two of them are getting married while I will be traveling on the other side of the planet, so it was meant to be a celebration in advance of exciting journeys. Sharing the newly revealed space and its rich history with them, I felt the first pangs of anticipated homesickness that I will surely experience on my travels. But mostly I felt gratitude for such great family and friends—the people I will always love and memories I cherish. They are the foundation that gives me the courage to go explore the world and opportunities yet unknown. This place is my launching pad, and I think Pappy would be pleased.