Photographs remind me that the privet hedge surrounding the house was once no more than waist high. Now, the long stretch of it is taller than my late husband’s 6 foot 4 height. Despite my diligence in trimming, the size of this bush has become unmanageable. Entire sections grew beyond my reach even with the extension pole on the clipper. Last summer, after a few sweaty attempts at taming, I surrendered and let it grow rogue – some shoots growing to 10 feet.
Years ago, a friend advised me to cut it back before it buds but I never shook winter’s torpor in time until this year when February felt more like March. Not wanting to look any more like the crazy house on the corner, I began tackling the massive job of pruning 2-3 feet off the top. It’s been more than 2 weeks and I’m still at it.
I bought a new handheld chain saw that I thought would have me zipping through this job but, chain saws are not great for shrubbery. It helps with the thick branches but the speeding blades turn the sprigs into whips dangerously slapping around my face and snagging in the chain. It chews at the unsteady branches like an attacking dog, resulting in ragged, splintered cuts. No, this job requires laborious, slow, hand-cutting, branch-by-branch. With lobber in hand and small clipper in my pocket, I start at the top of the driveway moving to the middle, then out to the street side – all the while, looking at the whole, as if I were working on a sculpture.
Turns out, I mostly enjoy this slow process. The job is meditative and memories flow. I remember how I learned to do this work from George – a tiny man who I’ve long described as old but now being there myself, I wonder what his age was. Probably younger than I am now. I was 18 and working with the university’s landscape crew the summer after my sophomore year at UCONN. He showed me how to prune vines and yew and privet. “You have to feel it in here,” he said, touching his heart. I was an art student frustrated with my teachers but George spoke to me, inspiring me more than any of those professors.
So, with my heart and increasingly achey arms, I snip, lob, snip, leaning out into the scratchy branches to reach a sucker a foot higher than the rest. It’s tough to cut and I’m at a bad angle and my foot slips on the the dry leaves beneath, but I shift my grip and squeeze and the blade breaks through and clicks as if in satisfaction. It’s hard to believe that once our neighbors could easily hand us a cup of sugar over this now gigantic bush. I need to bring it down low enough so I don’t have to get up on a ladder to prune.
This part of the hedge is where our Cairn Terrier, Tetley, used to dash through into the street to bark and otherwise greet passing dogs. A little to the left there is still enough of a hole to slip through as a short-cut to go to our neighbor’s house – something Molly did for years. Thanks to a volunteer oak tree that insists on growing back each year to lay claim to this space, the hole remains.
Every inch of this property and house is dense with memories, and this hedge is a tangle of them. As I pull out a thick growth, years of images come with it. Here’s where the bird’s nest was one year – lots of screaming and horror as a momma came squawking out at me and I worried I’d killed her babies but no bodies were found. Here’s where the dead elm tree fell in an early autumn snow storm, blocking the road and knocking the privet branches down, leaving a gap like a missing tooth. Once the tree was taken away, Molly and I pushed the roots back, straightening the section as much as we could and by late summer, the space had filled with new growth. It’s easy to spot the damage in winter but luckily, even at a 45 degree angle, the branches bloom in Spring covering the evidence.
Molly has memories of her own around the hedge. When I told her about my new chainsaw she remembered the summer her dad cut himself with the hedge-clipper, resulting in lots of blood. Joking about childhood trauma, she urged me to be very careful. Yes, the hedge has experienced all sorts of drama. My roughest memory is pushing aside branches in a section we never crawled through before, guiding my 8 year old ahead of me through the thick snarl of wood to the street. This was on the morning of Neil’s death, and I knew I could not let Molly see what I saw.
Our privet gives us privacy and has hidden sadness and even terrible things but within its green boundary, there have been more scenes of joy and laughter. Watching my daughter play and grow and run and swing across our lawn, joined by two of the sweetest dogs, first Tetley then Rufus – both blissfully chasing an abundance of squirrels. This woody shrubbery surrounds a place of love and good memories, including most of the years with Neil and then Rob. Despite the heartbreak of their stories, I also recall the love and sweetness and that they both made me laugh more than cry.
I thought I could just zoom through this make-over with a fancy tool but it’s a gift to take the time to trim, pare down, decide what branches to take out, where to cut so new growth will sprout easily. This scramble of fractals encompasses my life. I am not only preserving a boundary but creating space so I can accept the sugar offered my way.