Hope Springs Eternal

A family in isolation finds beauty in its own backyard.

Illustration of flowers and butterfly

My first home with my husband, Bill Downey ’04 Lib, was just off University Drive in State College. We could see Mount Nittany from our deck and hear Beaver Stadium touchdown cheers on game days. But when he was offered a job opportunity in Allentown a few years ago, we left Happy Valley for the Lehigh Valley.

Our new house needed a backyard big enough for our two young daughters—and a son on the way—so we settled into a woodsy neighborhood atop the city’s park system. The half-acre lot was mature with flower beds, veggie gardens, waterscapes, and wildlife. I’m told the property used to be a stop on the local garden tour. But, at our settlement, everything was so overgrown that we nearly walked away from the deal.

We spent the first few months unpacking, renovating, and trying not to lose our kids. Doubt crept in, especially when our baby boy arrived that fall: Were we too ambitious taking on a high-maintenance backyard? The following summers were spent digging out dead shrubs and half-eaten hostas (a.k.a. deer snacks), unearthing rusted lawn ornaments, and converting various beds into grass. One day, I found a sign on the arbor that read, I was going to plant an herb garden, but I didn’t have the thyme.

Every year I cringed when the daffodils broke ground, an omen of the months of labor ahead, and last spring was no different. But just as those green blades began poking through the dirt in mid-March, we learned that Pennsylvania was shutting down to slow the spread of COVID-19. After a few days (weeks?) of isolating, we finally emerged to clean up some sticks and leaves. There was raking, weeding, mulching … and fresh air. Yardwork, once dreaded, became therapeutic during the stay-at-home order. It was an escape from homeschooling and Zoom calls. While the girls potted petunia and marigold seeds, our son, now a toddler, watered them. They climbed around the koi pond, swung on the hammock, and built “rock hotels” for bugs. Shoes were dirty and spirits happy.

And, despite the world pausing, our property continued to bloom. The colors came so quickly that plant production felt like a production plant. We sniffed lilac and peony bouquets and watched as rhododendron buds grew into violet trusses. Our time outside was marked not by a day or month, but by the brilliant arrivals of sunny forsythia or flowery pink magnolias. It carried on like this into summer. Throughout the pandemic, I noticed other well-tended yards. At a time when we were told to distance ourselves—and for those of us who were fortunate to do so at home—here we all were, still connecting with living things in the most basic way.

As for this spring, when our sleepy daffodils wake and shake loose from their buried bulbs, I’ll be ready and waiting.