The Man Yard

The "Man" Yard

As I take my evening bike ride, I am delighted to see and smell the many gardens that bloom in our neighborhood. On warm evenings there's often the scent of sweet petunias, languid lilies and spicy marigolds on the breeze. There are so many kinds of gardens along my five mile route but there is one that I like particularly... What I call the “Man Yard”.

I've been lucky to know a couple of really good gardeners. Perhaps my favorite is my German aunt who has the most enormous garden filled with perennial borders, roses, raspberries and countless little “rooms”. It's a garden in the true European style – expansive, overflowing and abundant. It looks effortless in its informality, which is perhaps the hardest thing of all to achieve. It's a place to get lost in and a perfect idyll on hot summer days. I have the happiest memories of playing in that garden, of eating red raspberries, deep purple grapes, sour green apples and dusty Italian plums that were such fun to polish and shine. In the autumn I was sometimes allowed to help with the burning which was a great treat! And, I'll never forget how slavishly devoted my aunt has been to that acre-sized bit of Eden... To say it's been hard work is an understatement. But, it's also provided the most wonderful gathering place or, when needed, escaping place and the memory of the place will outlive us all.

My long gone grandfather was another kind of gardener entirely. He was a bachelor for his first forty years and a widower for the last twenty. But this fact never took away from his commitment to perfectly clean and well-kept surroundings. In his case, and the case of every true “Man Yard”, the word garden, as it's used to describe English or European yards, really didn't apply. His was unapologetically a “Man Yard” and I think of him each time I see others. What is a “Man Yard”? First, it's exceptionally tidy with every shrub clipped, every blade of grass of equal height and hue and contains only flowers and plants that one can easily buy at the local hardware store. The scent of fertilizer and barbecue smoke are often present, and early in the morning sprinklers can be heard. There is almost always a fence of some sort – certainly separating the front from the back yard and sometimes all around the property, front lawn included. The fence must be simple white picket or, equally acceptable, chain link. There is no pretension to this yard. The keeper of the Man Yard aims for beauty, yes, but also order and organization. It is an extension of the rest of the man's life which will likely include a spotless garage that smells of gasoline and oil and some sort of workshop in the back yard – rock polishing in my grandfather's case.

The Man Yard surrounds an equally tidy and well-kept home. The house itself is probably a mid-century ranch style or, perhaps, a bungalow. It will almost certainly have shutters, be air conditioned and have a “front room” used exclusively for “company”. In my grandfather's case, there was also a perfectly kept 1950's kitchen with a giant white range on which, and in which, my grandmother made Friday night fudge and Sunday afternoon roasts. It's the kind of house where you will find powdered sugar donuts, coffee and plenty of packs of playing cards.

The Man Yard itself goes something like this... There is always a hedge or two. Tall, deep green laurel and, for good measure and added work, perfectly clipped boxwood. (There is nothing like the scent of recently clipped boxwood to make one think of simpler, happier times.) The front yard will likely contain several large hydrangeas, the blue of which will astound you every year. The pathway and porch are always swept. There are deep red geraniums in pots – they seem to grow larger every year – and there may be sweet alyssum and sky blue “Crystal Palace” lobelia planted with them. There are also huge, drooping fuschias in impossible colors hanging on the front porch and, every evening, the front door will be opened and a light breeze will carry the noise of the children playing in the street through the aluminum screen door. Finally, if the man is particularly skillful, there will likely be a row of some sort of show flower along one side of the front yard – blazing dahlias in every color and shape from pom pom to dinner plate or the tall and tropical looking gladioli that will make you think twice about their designation as “funeral flowers”.

The back yard is nothing less than a slightly more utilitarian version of the front. Utilitarian only because it contains, along with more flowers, the vegetable patch. The back yard has a place for everything and everything it in its place. In that shady spot under the bathroom window you will find a mass of pink and white impatiens carpeting an area a yard long. There are so many pastel blooms that one can hardly make out a green leaf or a patch of soil. Along the fence, probably sturdy chain link in the back, there is a line of roses and what roses they are! There are bright red “American Beauties”, pearly pink “Queen Elizabeth” and peachy, glowing “Peace” roses. There's also a silvery white “John F. Kennedy” and a brilliant yellow variety of unknown origin that produces the most aromatic blooms on the longest deep red stems that you've ever seen! The leaves on these rose bushes are uniformly shiny, the deepest green, and would never dare to be weak enough to fall prey to blackspot or any other mundane disease. These are champion roses, and the man of the house knows it. The roses are a source of conversation for the man and his longtime neighbor – the one who never seems to have any luck with his roses or tomatoes or strawberries.

The vegetable patch is laid out in neat rows along the opposite side of the yard. The side that edges against “the other neighbor”. The neighbor with the enormous, constantly barking Doberman. The neighbor who mows his lawn, but only on every third Sunday of the month and, generally, at around 6 a.m. Despite this lack of neighborly harmony, the vegetable plot remains a constant source of pride. There is no place in the yard that has richer soil or fewer weeds. The very idea of a weed will cause the man to crawl, on hands and knees, between the rows of green beans, sweet corn and Beefsteak tomatoes, daring the tiny invaders to show their green shoots. From this vegetable garden the man produces bushels of carrots and radishes, lettuces and beets, baskets of tomatoes and endless barrows of squash and zuchini. There is more than enough to see the man through the summer and fall and winter and neighbors up and down his block can take what they like from the cardboard boxes and brown paper bags marked “FREE” that sit along the curb in front of his tidy house with the square of emerald lawn. If you ask the man what he uses to produce this bounty he's likely to answer something like, “Nothing special. Maybe a little Miracle-Gro.”

The back yard also has beds that overflow with petunias in patriotic plantings of red, white and deep purple. There are marigolds in perfect rows, arranged by height, with the huge, tall, yellow varieties at the back and the daintier gold and rust colored blooms in front. There are snapdragons and plots of cosmos and hollyhocks which appear every year in places that they were never intended to grow. And, on the shaded cement patio, among the ancient, white-painted Adirondack chairs that will surely last another year, are repeats of the clay pots of red geraniums and blue lobelia and white alyssum that line the front porch. And, providing just a hint of the tropics, more pink and purple and red and white hanging fuschias that sway gently in the early evening, late summer breezes.

The Man Yard is simple. It's straightforward. It's calming. The work that goes into it is invisible. You will never see anyone working in the Man Yard, and you will wonder how it ever came together. The man himself will appear in the early mornings and early evenings to survey his masterpiece. He will look left and right. He will stoop to pick out an invisible weed from the perfectly smooth expanse of green, green grass, and he will be content.


Read an Excerpt from "A Christmas with Queen Mary"

A Christmas with Queen Mary


Christmas 1944 was the sixth Yuletide holiday celebrated in Britain under the shadow of World War II. Rationing had made life miserable for the average man and woman, there wasn't enough heat, enough fuel, enough of anything. The countryside fared a bit better with the easier availability of fresh produce, milk and eggs, but staples like sugar and coffee were still scarce. No one was immune from hardship, either. At Buckingham Palace in London, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth might still dine on fine china and gold plate, but the food that sat upon the dishes was no better than that on most other British home – rissoles (minced meat mixed with potatoes and onion, shaped and fried), plenty of root vegetables and powdered milk. Sweets were a rarity and store-bought pastries virtually impossible to find.

The holiday was particularly hard for servicemen. Away from home and unsure of when life would return to normal, if they survived the war, soldiers took comfort in anything that reminded them of home and family. England alone hosted over 2 million American servicemen by the time the war ended.

Families were often separated during the war. Not just soldiers, but extended families sometimes found it difficult to stay together. While King George VI and Queen Elizabeth remained in London to send the message that they were in the thick of the suffering just like their subjects, their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, were evacuated to Windsor Castle for safekeeping. The King's mother, Queen Mary, spent most of the war at the country home of her niece, the Duchess of Beaufort, at Badminton House. For Queen Mary, absence from the capitol was a dual hardship. First, she felt that it was her duty to stand for the people and, secondly, because she loved city life, finding long days in the country dull. Only after the King convinced her that her absence from the danger of London would ease his burden did she agree to go.

Queen Mary's image today remains much like it was during her lifetime – regal, serious and unsmiling. Unfortunately, most photographs from this period support this view. Even more unfortunately, this impression is not entirely correct. While Queen Mary believed very much in the dignity of her position, she was also possessed of an excellent sense of humor, a lovely laugh and a charming singing voice. Her face was much like that of the present Queen – somewhat forbidding in repose but, when the occasion called for it, she would break into a delightful smile. There are also many wartime anecdotes from both British and American soldiers that remark upon her genuine interest in their welfare, her willingness to pick up almost any soldier she passed while driving in her Daimler limousine on the country lanes near Badminton House and her warmth and kindness.

While this story is entirely a work of fiction, it springs from the reality of the times in which it takes place. World War II, like many other difficult situations, brought out the best and worst in everyone. Class barriers were broken down and people found themselves in places and circumstances that they couldn't have imagined in peacetime. At its heart, this story is about kindness and about the value we all have to one another. No matter who we are, or how high or low we are in the world, we all have value. We all have similar wants and needs, and we can all learn something from one another.

Chapter One

If he could suspend belief for just a moment, Corporal Matthew Hennessy could almost believe that he was back at home, walking along the road that connected his farm with the main street leading into town. The trees looked the same. The cows looked the same and even the sharp wind that assailed him felt the same. Had he not been keenly, and somewhat painfully, aware of the fact that he was thousands of miles away from the beloved place, he could have felt a moment's joy.

As it was, Matthew was feeling just short of despondent. He'd arrived only a few days before and within hours had been transferred to another unit. His commanding officer had told him how lucky he was as his new outfit was on leave through the Christmas holiday. Unfortunately, nearly everyone in his group had found this out the day before and had left the base. He was virtually alone for the next five days. To be alone and far from home at Christmas seemed to be an awful punishment to the young man.

Deciding that it was time to return to his base he noticed that the light was starting to fade. Corporal Hennessy heard the sound of an approaching car and turning around saw a long black Daimler limousine moving toward him. As it pulled alongside, the car stopped and the rear window was slowly lowered.

“Good afternoon young man. Could we offer you a lift?”
The cultured but kindly voice belonged to a very upright old woman wearing a rather tall and imposing hat. Her eyes were friendly but there was a sort of regal quality about her.

“Thank you all the same, ma'am, but I was just about to turn around and head back for my base.”

“Well, never mind that. Why don't you join me for tea and then we'll see to it that you get back to your base. It's awfully cold and it's getting rather dark.”

“Thank you, ma'am. That's very nice of you.”

Corporal Hennessy climbed into the back seat of the car and sat next to the elderly woman. She looked vaguely familiar but Matthew couldn't place her. If anything, he was reminded of his English grandmother back home. Never in his life had he seen her slouch, let alone touch the back of the seat in which she sat.

“You are from America, are you not?” This was more of a statement than a question.

“That's right, ma'am.”
“Where in America do you live?”

“I doubt that you've heard of it, ma'am. It's an awfully small town.”

The old lady's eyebrow arched. “You might be surprised, young man, I've heard of a great many places.”

“It's a place called Corvallis. It's in...” The woman interrupted him.

“Oregon, I believe. Not terribly far from the coast.”

“That's right! How did you know?”

The lady laughed merrily. “It's really quite simple. My cousin stopped at Corvallis once and was entertained by some red Indians. She was on her way to San Francisco after visiting a museum in the State of Washington. She wrote quite a description of the proceedings and it all sounded rather romantic and exciting. I've remembered the name ever since.”

“I can honestly say that I've never thought of Corvallis as either romantic or exciting, but I've also never seen a red Indian.”

“Well, such things seem to be trotted out for our benefit wherever we go.” The woman laughed again although Corporal Hennessy didn't quite understand what she meant.

Just as Matthew was about to ask a few of his own questions, he noticed that they were pulling through a rather ornate gate and heading toward a large and very grand house.

“Is this where your niece lives?? Corporal Hennessy was rather surprised at the grandeur of the place.

“Yes. It belongs to her husband's family. I'll warn you, it's rather close quarters just now.”

The car pulled silently to the entrance and an elderly servant in livery opened the door. As the lady alighted and Matthew noticed that the old man gave a stiff, correct neck bow. He was always impressed by formality of the English but didn't give it much thought.

A rather imposing man stood at door and he, too, bowed quickly. As she passed the woman said, “Small, we'll have tea in the drawing room. Corporal... I don't think I ever asked your name.”

“Hennessy. Matthew Hennessy.”

“Yes, Corporal Hennessy will be joining me. Is the Duchess in as well?”

“No, Your Majesty. Her Grace will not be back in time for tea but asked me to tell you that she will be at dinner.”

“Ah, good. We have rather a lot to do to prepare for Christmas Day. Thank you, Small.”
Matthew's mind was reeling. “Your Majesty”?! And then, quite suddenly it dawned on him. Of course this lady looked familiar. It was Queen Mary! The mother of the Kind of England! His grandmother had a mug and a biscuit tin from the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary sitting on a special shelf in her bedroom. She'd often talked of seeing the King and Queen pass by in their golden coach on the way to the ceremony. And here he was, Matthew Hennessy, about to have tea with the Queen herself and he hadn't even recognized her.

Entering the drawing room, Queen Mary directed Matthew to a comfortable chair covered in blue silk just opposite the fireplace. An enormous Christmas tree decorated with red wax candles and shiny silver balls stood nearby. A fire roared in the fireplace. It was the warmest Matthew had been in weeks. The room was lined with richly carved wood paneling, old books and large paintings of long dead ancestors. The Queen sat opposite him and gave him a warm smile.

“Your Majesty, I must apologize. I really should have known who you were but I never would have thought in a million years that...”

Queen Mary giggled a surprisingly girlish giggle. “Please, don't give it a thought. You've know idea how nice it can be not to be recognized and to be spoken to as if one were an entirely anonymous person. It's one of the things that I think I like most about the Americans. They treat one with such an open and friendly manner. My cousin – the one who was at Corvallis – often spoke of this.”

“May I ask who your cousin was, ma'am?”

“Oh, yes, of course. It was Queen Marie of Rumania. She was in the United States to open a museum that a rather flamboyant man named Sam Hill had built. I think it was in an oddly remote place in the State of Washington, but Missy was very fond of him and, of course, he'd invested rather a lot of money in Rumania. Missy was quite remarkable, you know. Quite a character!”

“If you'll excuse me for saying so, I'm having a rather hard time believing that I am sitting here and talking to you, Your Majesty. Back home, my grandmother often talks about the time she watched you and King George pass by on your way to the coronation. She would never believe it if I told her that I was here.”

Queen Mary smiled warmly. “Tell me about your family, Corporal. I am very interested in what your life is like back in America.”

“My family is about as normal a family as there is. My dad's a carpenter and he keep chickens on our small farm. He loves to build things and was always making something for me and my brothers Last year he built an enormous tree house for my kid brother, but he's already outgrown that. Dad can't bear to think of his boys growing up.”

“Do you and your father correspond?”

“Oh, sure. Dad's a big one for letters. He wrote me a letter to take on the train when I left home, and I think he's written at least once a week since then.”

“What sorts of things does your father write to you?” The old queen seemed genuinely interested in Matthew's family.

“Just the normal things. He tells me how my high school football and basketball teams are getting along. He writes about all of the funny things our neighbors and friends get up to. And, he keeps me up to date on what's happened to all of my old pals.”

“Are many of your friends in the military?”

“I'd say that all of them are. Except my best friend Chuck Hamilton. He has a condition of some kind and it kept him out of the service.”

“Your father must love you very much to take the time to write so often.”
“Well, my dad is just that sort of guy. He's really as much of a friend as a father. We have long talks, play cards together, and he takes us all fishing during the summer. Funny thing is, I can't remember him ever catching a fish. I guess it's just an excuse to spend time with us and talk.”

“What about your mother. What sort of person is she?”

“My mother is the sort of person who never seems to sleep. She's constantly doing something for someone. She's a great cook. I'd give a lot to be home for Christmas dinner! I think she spends all year planning for Christmas. Every night she's at work on a present for someone – knitting or sewing. And every year we do the same thing. As soon as Thanksgiving is over, we get out all of the Christmas decorations and dad takes us to get the tree. Mom starts baking and freezing cookies and cakes and she stays busy baking until the New Year.”

“I don't think I've ever heard of cookies. What are they?”

“I think you call them biscuits over here. My mom is the best baker for miles around. Every year our whole family piles into the kitchen to bake dozens and dozens of batches to give away to our friends and neighbors. Mom was always worried that we thought too much about what we were getting for Christmas, so she made sure that we had to do some giving as well.”

“Your mother seems to be a very intelligent woman, Corporal. You mentioned your grandmother. She is English?”

“Yes, my grandmother was born in Skegness. She was a parlour maid in Hull before she came to the States. Her aunt had a hotel on the coast in Oregon and she went to work there. After she met my grandfather, she decided to stay.”

“Does your grandmother live with you?”

“Yes. She has her own room. In fact, she has a special shelf on the wall and on that shelf she keeps a mug commemorating Your Majesty's coronation. She has a biscuit tin, too. She won't let anyone touch them, but she keeps candy in the tin and if we are really good, she'll give each of us a piece. I am her favorite, so I get candy pretty regularly.”

“How do you know that you are her favorite?” The Queen looked at Matthew conspiratorially.

“Well, she tells me!” Corporal Hennessy stated somewhat emphatically.

“Ah, well, you should know that I say the same thing to each of my grandchildren when I am alone with them.” They laughed together at this revelation. “How old are you Corporal Hennessy?”

“I'm twenty-four ma'am.”

“How would you like to spend Christmas here with us?”

“Well, I don't really know what to say Your Majesty. I don't want to impose...” Matthew couldn't fully contain his surprise.

“Oh, none of that! It wouldn't be an imposition at all. You are most welcome, and I could use your help with the children's party and my wooding crew is always looking for young and strong recruits!”

“Your wooding crew?” Corporal Hennessy hadn't heard the term before.

Just as the Queen was about to answer a voice piped up behind him. “Is my aunt trying to get you to join her in the fight against ivy?”

Matthew stood and a pleasant woman approached, gave a quick curtsy to the Queen and kissed her on both cheeks. She turned toward and introduced herself.

“You must be the soldier that has the house in quite a state of excitement. Small told me that the Queen had brought home another one of her Americans and the maids are quite intrigued. I am the Duchess of Beaufort, how very nice to meet you. Oh, do sit down, please.”

“Mary, I've invited Corporal Hennessy to spend Christmas with us. I am sure that we can make room for him, can't we?” Although posed as a question, Matthew could see that most of Queen Mary's questions sounded more like definitive statements.

“Of course we can. It should be great fun to have someone else and it will liven up the children's party to no end. You know how they adore Americans.”

As the two ladies conversation continues, Matthew took stock of his situation. Quite resigned to being miserably lonely on his favorite day of the year, he was now sitting in the drawing room of what, to him, amounted to a palace with a Queen and a Duchess and he was being invited to spend Christmas with them. It also appeared that he would be a welcome attraction to a group of English children, something quite outside his normal experience. Back home, Corporal Hennessy stayed decidedly in the background, preferring the company of a few friends or his family.

“Corporal Hennessy, Small and I will show you to your room and he will arrange for anything you need to be collected from your barracks. If you should need anything at all, please don't hesitate to ask. We want you to be absolutely comfortable here and know that you are most welcome.” The Duchess' warm smile put Matthew at ease.

“Quite right. We shall see you at dinner. Please don't worry about dressing for dinner. Of course, we do, but we understand that you might not have a very comprehensive wardrobe at the moment. As Mary said, Small will help you with anything you might need. And now, Corporal Hennessy, I shall say goodbye until this evening. It has been a most delightful afternoon.” As the Queen gave a warm smile Matthew noticed that the Duchess curtsied and the butler, Small, gave another of his neat neck bows, which he copied quite nicely.


Excerpt from "Conversations with the Queen"

“Mummy!  Granny has curtains just like her dress!”

The little girl couldn’t have been more than five, and she’d done a commendable job of presenting her little bouquet to the Queen.  Smiling as the child walked back to her mother, the Queen couldn’t help but overhear the girl’s comment.

Now, as she looked back over the day from the comfort of her sitting room in Buckingham Palace, the monarch pondered her wardrobe choice for a moment.  She thought of the lovely silk dress, with splotchy flowers in violet, magenta, yellow, spring green and orange.  Really, it was colorful, and no one could possibly miss her diminutive form in a crowd.  And wasn’t that what being the Queen was all about?  Being seen?  “Silly child,” thought the Queen.

The next morning as she was prepared for the day, Elizabeth asked her dresser to bring out something new, something a bit more “fashionable”.  Caroline was at a loss.  The Queen’s style had evolved into an even more rigid pattern of simple dresses in rather shocking fabrics.  Her Majesty’s figure had also changed somewhat.  It was a bit fuller than it had been, leading her to sometimes appear more upholstered than dressed.  It was not that she looked bad, in fact she was the world’s idea of what the Queen should look like, but it was hard to find anything that one could term “fashionable” in the royal wardrobes.

“Did you see Dame Shirley Bassey’s hair at the last Royal Variety Performance?  I thought it was rather nice…  for her, I mean.   And that dress!  It was quite low-cut.  Lots of beads and sparkly bits.  Rather like Norman used to make.”

The Queen was referring to her late couturier, Norman Hartnell.  A man known for elaborate, and costly, beading on his fabulous ballgowns.  Shirley Bassey’s gown was certainly sparkly, but bore little resemblance to anything that Norman had ever made for the Queen.

“You know, she’s in her late sixties now.  I think she’s been at every Royal Variety Performance for the last forty years.  Maybe longer.  I certainly do like her better than some of the new ones.  I don’t quite understand that girl, what was her name?  Lady Goo Ga?  Does her father have a peerage or something?”

“Lady Ga Ga, your majesty.  I don’t believe that her father has a peerage.  She’s an American.  Sings or something.”

“Mmm.  American.  Of course.  Did you see her in that dress?  It looked like it was made of a deflated, red balloon.  I’m sure it squeaked as she curtsied.  Those American singers certainly do dress oddly.  Barbra Streisand in that long silver cloak.  Had the fabric been different she really would have looked rather a lot like Philip’s mother when she was a nun.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I remember when Cher performed once.  She was only wearing some sort of thin leather strap that barely covered her…  er…  that barely covered her person.  I think there was a feather, too.”

“Caroline, I quite remember.  That was the year Andrew came along for the first time.  I am sure that had something to do with all of his later troubles.”

The Queen frequently spoke of her favorite son.  The most robust of the boys, Andrew treated his mother with a sort of boisterous respect.  Charles was forever moping, those droopy eyes and constant complaints about how, ‘Mummy never did this, Papa never did that.”  What did he really expect?  She was forever reading those lovely books about horses and corgis to him, and she would watch the racing results with him whenever she was able.  And Philip had done his best as a father.  He didn’t really yell all that much, and the boy was so tiresome talking to those plants and things.  Charles could never seem to forgive his father for the cold showers he had to endure at Gordonstoun.  Imagine how much better things would have been had he taken a few more cold showers rather than meeting up with that dreadful Mrs. Parker-Bowles.  She had to remind herself to think of her daughter-in-law as anything else.  Diana had been just as tiresome as Charles, but at least she didn’t look like a bull dog in a big hat.

Anne was a dutiful daughter, and a great support, but she was so forceful.  The Queen didn’t like the way she barked back at the corgis, or the somewhat too strident way she spoke to the staff.  She also wondered at her fashion sense, ironic really, but there you have it.  She might have worn the same dress she wore to Charles and Diana’s wedding to Charles and Camilla’s had Philip not pointed out the error, if that’s what it was.  Anne never really did like any of Charles’s women.

Edward.  Well, poor Eddie.  She really should have known better than to give him that name.  Her ancestor, the Duke of Clarence was also known as Eddy, and he had his own problems.  Some suspected him of being Jack the Ripper.  Her own Eddie didn’t have such serious issues, but she never understood why he was always trying on her tiaras as a child.  Even now he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time modeling his wife’s hats.  But, he had those two lovely children and a charming wife.  If only she would stop trying to sell invitations to the Garden Parties and State Dinners.

“Ah, well, this will have to do, Caroline.  At least it’s new, if not exactly modern.”

Considering her reflection in the mirror, the Queen seemed resigned to her appearance.  At least she was living up to people’s expectations, but it would be rather fun to surprise people after all these years.  She remembered looking at her late and much beloved mother’s wardrobe after her death.  Every dress was exactly the same, as were the hats, shoes and coats.  The only difference was the fabric and the color.  Was she becoming like that?

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