Two years after we moved into a rented house in Bethesda, my wife and I had an opportunity to buy it. We had come to love the solid oak floors, the small room with its half-height closet just right for our 3-year-old daughter, the flagstone patio in back under a canopy of hornbeam trees, and the succession of flowers that popped out each spring like perfectly timed fireworks: purple crocuses, yellow daffodils, crimson tulips, a variety of pink azaleas and the bright white blossoms of a lone dogwood.
Along with the many official documents that required our signature, the seller passed along two curious sheets of lined note paper, faded and slightly yellowed from age. One contained a hand-drawn diagram of the property. It marked the location of each tree, shrub and flower bed. The other sheet, covered with meticulous penmanship, identified the plants and included notes about their care.
For a bed of scilla and crocus plants was this from the voice of experience: "Squirrels love to dig up & eat bulbs. To discourage them use bloodmeal as fertilizer." Snails were to be baited with stale beer in dishes. Aphids could be dispatched with a spray of detergent water.
Not all insects were the enemy. Ladybugs could be purchased from the California Bug Co.--address provided--and praying mantis eggs could be ordered from a garden shop in New Jersey.
I marveled at the detail, and I wondered, too, about the author. But the seller couldn't shed much light. Somewhere in the history of the house, which dated to the mid-1930s, a professional gardener had owned it, and his notes had been passed down from owner to owner. It seemed unlikely we would ever know much more.
Then one day early this summer, I was sitting with my wife on the front steps, watching our daughter play in the yard, when a car stopped on the street. The driver, a man who looked to be about 70, rolled down the window. He gazed at the brick walls, the white trim, the black wood shutters, freshly painted, and announced, "I grew up in this house."
My wife and I were propelled forward, hungry for details. The driver was with his wife, a gentle woman who was seeing the house for the first time. They had just driven from Florida on their way to a vacation farther north. As the driver stepped from the car, his attention shifted to the landscaping. On each side and along the back of the property are a line of hornbeam trees, dozens of them, that rise 30 feet or so and spread their limbs to form a shady green cocoon. So overgrown, he said. He told us they were meant to be a hedge, about eight feet high, trimmed back each year.
At that instant, the pieces fell into place. I dashed into the house, rummaging around until I found the envelope with those two faded sheets of paper. And there it was on the drawing: a note identifying the hedge as hornbeam, "actually trees that can be kept neatly trimmed."
I handed him the paper.
"That's my father's handwriting," he said.
He told us his father had been a landscape architect and had purchased the house new in the mid-1930s. This man standing before us had been about 7 years old at the time, had attended the school across the street, and could look out the window of his room--now my daughter's room--and see his classroom.
As a teenager, he had moved upstairs to a corner room where we now house our guests. They often tell us it is the most quiet and peaceful place they have ever slept. In that room, he twice battled pneumonia. There, too, he worked on his homework until midnight and brought home the grades that sent him to a respected university.
He pointed out the house down the street where his third-grade teacher had lived, the house behind ours where a colorful senator made his home, and the house next door where a neighbor boy used to delight in setting little airplanes on fire and sailing them out into the yard. The same boy, some years later, had died the way he played, aboard an aircraft shot down in World War II.
We learned that the flagstone walk and patio had their origins in a quarry a few miles away. He looked up at a gable on the top floor and volunteered, with pride, that its shingles were real Vermont slate.
We came back around, finally, to the overgrown hornbeams. I told him that we loved the shade. I explained that when my daughter was smaller, her naps were sometimes elusive. Desperate, we would occasionally drive her around in the car until she nodded off, then park in the shade of those trees, roll down the windows and let her doze.
He smiled at that, and I realized that I hadn't seen him laugh or smile since he arrived.
We asked him if he would like to come in. No, he said, he wanted to remember the house the way it had been, with the solid oak floors that his mother had kept so well waxed, the dark smooth banister leading up to the second floor and the piano in the front room.
Our visitor said it was time to go. I wrote our phone number on a small card, which he slipped into his pocket. I hoped we would hear from him again, but I thought it unlikely he would ever call.
I don't know what he wanted to get by stopping by, but I hoped he got it. What we got, said my wife, was a gift. This house we loved so much had a history, and we would now be part of it.
Too often, something that seems ordinary is just there. We don't wonder about who put it there, about the vision they had, about the care they took. In some neighborhoods, houses fall into disrepair and yards get overgrown, and the dreams of former owners fade away. Or, as has been happening near us, new owners with deep pockets tear them down and put bigger, fancier ones in their place.
But here was a link to the past, to one gardener's long-gone sense of place and peace. As his son drove off, I lay down on the grass next to my little girl, our hands behind our heads, watching for fireflies in the gathering dusk, and I imagined that she might come by this house when she herself is passing middle age and tell some other child that she once met a man who grew up in that cozy room on the second floor a hundred years earlier, whose father had laid the flagstones, planted the saplings and put out ladybugs to care, in their own way, for his beloved yard.