This I Believe

Judy - State College, Pennsylvania
Entered on June 23, 2008

Trailer Trash and Tender Truth in my Own Front Yard

Yesterday a really close friend told me that my Park Forest Home looks a little “Trailer-Park-White-Trash.” He meant well, you know, in the way that the Queer Eye cast means well when they tsk under their breath and gently guide a straight guy to the beauty shop for immediate removal of his mullet. But still, I was shocked by the comment and even more by my reaction to it. Sure, this good friend could stand to learn that when a woman has just busted her butt creating a garden for her home, she is not actually asking for a rating on the trailer-park-to-yuppie spectrum when she cheerfully says, “What do you think?” What interests me even more than his blunder, though, is that I felt ashamed and vaguely unwashed at being included in the kind of labeling I imagined myself to be above, by virtue of my supposed enlightenment, if nothing else. This is the part where I mention that some of my best friends live in trailer parks. Actually, come to think of it, the one guy I do know who lives in one makes considerably more money than I do, and has for years. I never thought it was shameful that he lived in a trailer park, so why was I feeling vulnerable to the accusation that my home décor resembled one? Why would I suddenly second-guess my choice of style—which I would have called friendly, relaxed, and creative—just because someone else saw it as a class issue?

Well, for one thing, because no one exists in a vacuum. “My neighbors!” I thought to myself. “My poor neighbors! They would hate to be associated with trailer trash.”

You see, I believe we should temper being true to ourselves with the ability to see how our truth affects those around us. I may come by my home-and-garden tastes honestly, but that does not mean that the result of my choices should be imposed on the community in close proximity to me. Raising a son who rightfully revels in his status as a person with Asperger’s, I have had many occasions to understand how important it is to balance celebration of difference with deference for other’s needs. For example, my son finds himself constitutionally incapable of lying. That is a good thing. But it does not mean he gets a free pass to hurt other’s feelings just because he’s telling the truth. When he has done something to upset his younger sister he will not say “I’m sorry,” as that is not an accurate and thus truthful description of what he is feeling. But he will, every time, faithfully say “I apologize.” So after my friend-on-probation left, I decided it was time to take a good hard look around, to see what my yard might look like from my neighbors’ perspective, to see how I might be able to apologize if necessary.

Ok, it’s immediately clear that my front yard is busier than most. There are two large wooden swing-sets, both of which get used often, in all seasons, if nothing else as a climbing entertainment center for our beloved cat, who has been known to cause frantic chipmunks to make spectacular leaps from the top of the structure to the ground 12 feet below. There’s only one tree, a Sunset maple that we planted for the shade and for the earth. The bench, picnic table, and three white plastic chairs are all clustered under the tree, as my kids and I eat every meal outside in the summer months, and invite friends to join us often. Because we have no usable back yard (it is a steeply graded wildly overgrown hill), all our play and socializing happens in the front, just feet away from the sidewalk. This means our mealtimes lack privacy, which we don’t mind at all: both kids are intensely attached to the variety of dogs who regularly walk by, and it is a favorite summer pastime for us to meet and greet Sadie, Molly, Newt, Porter, Pierre and Poppie, who are probably happy to see us in part because we are invariably wearing part of dinner on the front of our shirts. Maybe that’s where the trailer trash look comes from: the homeowner who presides over the picnic table. At times, I’ll admit, say early in the morning, I may not be dressed in a way that could be described as classy. But before becoming fully conscious, I rely on coffee and the sight from my picnic table perch of friends Judy and Aileen sauntering by with a cherished elderly neighbor, exchanging daily stories and small kindnesses before the work day begins.

Ok, so the picnic table stays, no apologies necessary. How about the basketball-on-a-stand? It’s true that the last time it was used for actual basketball was when we had our annual all-neighborhood outdoor party, and three boys avoided the grownup chatter by playing until after dark. But the thing gets a regular workout as a clanging opponent in my son’s practice fencing sessions, and it is an excellent part of our anarchic Calvinball games where we have been known to throw sturdy stuffed cats into the hoop instead of balls. This may have resulted in a few occasions where we neglected to gather up all the cats at the end of the day, which may have resulted in one hanging cat becoming bedraggled in the ensuing rain, wind, and snow, which may have at times caused a visitor to startle at the sight of what looked maybe a bit from a certain angle like a cat corpse left mid-dunk. But eventually we do get around to finding a ladder tall enough to allow us to rectify the problem.

Could the real problem then be the garden? The blowzy, expanding explosion of wildflowers, lavender, reseeded coreopsis, multiplying bee balm, and unladylike Greek rose that is spread out over the entire front, from the sidewalk to the door? I have always preferred the informal English garden look to the more razor-clean French garden style. But maybe using the dismantled metal bunk bed frame in flamboyant red to delineate the boundaries of the vegetable garden and to hold up climbing vines was too much? Perhaps one person’s funky recycling is another person’s trash-on-display? I was hoping to earn points for growing zero-carbon-footprint food, enough to keep my entire family in vegetables for the entire summer. But maybe there is a secret rule that you are only Martha-Stewart-gardening if the foodstuff is kept to the back yard. Who knew?

Apparently not trailer trash. Still, upon reflection I’ve decided that I’ll keep the yard as it is. Because in this case, I believe that while being true to myself may clash with the aesthetics of my neighborhood, it does not challenge the spirit of my street. I believe my community will forgive the truth of my bad taste just as I will forgive my friend’s unfortunate form of truth-telling. I believe that’s what friends and neighbors are for.