Out back was a yard that stretched fully from the house to the street behind. It was a very deep lot that first had a paved tar and gravel area for play and drying clothes, and an entrance to the cellar under the house. Then there was a step up to a large cutting garden for flowers and herbs, and abundant vegetables. Through the last gate was a fruit orchard with apple, peach, black and white figs, walnut and loquat trees. Down the center, dividing the orchard ran blackberry vines. Among the tools left from tilling and trimming was a rusty oil drum used for burning paper trash before its ash was turned into a compost heap at the furthest point of the yard.
My grandfather was in charge of the garden. A little bull of a man, immensely strong, short and compact, hairy golden arms and chest, a gray-blonde comb-over, light skin and blue eyes. His stature was exactly what one would expect of an older Italian gentleman while his coloring was the opposite. One of his jobs was to ride herd on the grandchildren and keep order in the yard. With our unwanted help horse beans grew in the daisy and gladiolus beds, and avocado trees (launched from seeds on the kitchen window sill) sprouted almost anywhere. None of this made Grandpa happy.
On the first level where the grandkids played (and Grandpa sought to contain us) was the lath house. Set on a concrete foundation it was a rectangular structure covered with wooden, white diagonal lattice on three sides and a large stage-like opening in front. It backed up to a thick hedge that created a border between my grandparents’ yard and the Bonaccorsi’s, next door. Sometimes the vines in the hedge played a weaving game, tangling with other greenery then poking through into the lath house. Pink and red climbing roses grew at its sides among blue hydrangea bushes. Nature provided all the adornment needed against the crisp white back drop of the lath house.
The lath house sheltered a long table my grandfather had built, with benches running its length on each side. During the winter the table was covered with newspapers and screened racks for drying walnuts and fava beans in their variegated pods. As warm summer days slipped into chilly late autumn, walnuts dropped from the orchard trees. The nuts spent winter drying in the lath house and those not carried away by the squirrels made their way inside for shelling, sorting and storing.
The table had other uses for the children. It provided not-so-secret shelter for games of hide and seek, and easily became a fort with the addition of a worn green, woolen Army blanket found in the old garage. Sometimes little bodies hidden below it stretched arms high to the table top and puppet shows were born. When school was out for summer, the lath house served as a stage for fledgling performance art, while Mom and Grandma served lemonade to the cheering local audience who arrived on two and three-wheel bikes, dressed in their finest flip-flops and ribboned pigtails.
In the rear view mirror nothing seems more important in lath house lore than its ritual spring purge. After all, its real purpose was to seat the entire family for outside summer dinners. As days began to lengthen into spring, holding promises of future al fresco dining, the last of Grandpa’s cool weather bounty was harvested and the lath house was emptied of its winter work.
I believe calling it merely spring cleaning would be to understate the energy and enthusiasm poured into lath house purification. All furniture was removed as walls were swept clean and spiders left homeless. The tangle of vines and webs and crunchy fall leaves trapped between them was removed from the lattice. Debris was broomed from the roof, the concrete floor mopped and rinsed with the hose. The table and benches were scoured before being returned to the lath house.
Grandma, Grandpa, Mom and kids participated in the event though I can’t say the grandchildren were much actual help. I wasn’t. The idea that soon the table would be covered with lively print oil cloth and set for a family meal invited excitement on par with Christmas dinner. Memory of summers before, Grandma emerging from the back door and down the steps with a platter piled high with steaming pastasciutta fomented the fervor.
In the lath house we could be a little messier without Dad’s evil-eye, we could be a bit noisier without a stern shushing. Unnoticed we could linger a tad longer after dinner listening to adults moving between English and Italian, switching to the one we couldn’t understand when they talked about us. There they would drink Zin from small juice glasses, and have after dinner tazze di caffè. The lath house represented summer. And family.
As dusk tip-toed into sundown my brothers and I slipped away from the table to ride bikes in the paved area between the house and lath castle, to run and chase away the day before being loaded into the family car and taken home for bed. There were evenings of Pinochle, wine, whiskey shots in strong caffè, Italian cigars and desserts of fruit and cheese, but we were left out of those; only sometimes were we lucky enough to spend the night at Grandma’s where we could hear grown-up laughter on the breeze through our bedroom window not knowing then that these memories would become so vivid in the rear view mirror.
The lath house no longer stands behind the home on Myrtle Street. A snoop on Google Earth revealed it’s been replaced by a Victorian-type gazebo. In my dreams I buy the little bungalow back for our family, my brothers and me, our children and grandchildren; we erase all evidence that it ever slipped from our hands, or that time has passed. There the lath house stands tall, awaiting the spring flurry that brought summer and stories of clinking glasses, shouts of Salute!, laughter and love. As it is in my rear view mirror, the lath house never ages in my dreams. Instead it provides the tales future generations will tell.