Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The View from Here

“Well, yes, thank you, I think I will,” Reverend Griffith responded to the invitation of Elaine Jakes’ mother, Blanche, to come in for some cool, almost iced, Black Current tea, served with homemade water biscuits, and Hen Sir cheese. So it was that after church, the devoted rector was making a few pastoral visitations on that warm, far too humid summer afternoon of the first of August in 1937, nigh upon eighty years ago now. Even though it was a bit outside of his regular rounds further down the Susquehanna River in Plymouth and Larksville, Reverend Griffith came to Kingston, mainly because Blanche and Harry lived there, quite a stretch from Plymouth’s Gaylord Avenue Welsh Calvinistic Presbyterian (and therefore tautological) Church, a house of God with far too long a name.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

Nevertheless, the good cleric traversed that far distance, specifically to the house of Jemima Jones, where also dwelt Jemima’s niece, Blanche, and her husband, Harry. Jemima had taken in the recently wed couple a decade before, and they were in the process of raising a young family in that fine, but far from fancy duplex there near the intersection of Rutter Avenue and Pierce Street.

“There’s a lot of love in this house,” said the reverend. “You have a fine family, Blanche.”

“Pshaw,” followed by a pause; then she added, “But thank you. Harry is in the backyard. Why don’t you go out and chat with him and I’ll bring the tea and cheese out to you. It’s Black Current tea, Reverend.”

“How rare, hard to find these days. It sounds wonderful, Blanche,” he said making his way onto the narrow back porch.

There sat Harry in a ribbed tank-top tee shirt and shorts in the middle of the yard on a folding chair with his feet in a washbasin-sized bucket of cool water, which he was splashing up on his chest and head just as the reverend descended the back steps. After he welcomed Hugh Griffith with the proper august holy-ringing title he said, “It’s a tiny yard, but I love it. It’s cool here in the shade of the house and the trees, and I come out here to clear my head, to pray.”

As Harry tended to write down his prayers, it is likely that he actually went into the back yard to compose with pencil and paper. I won’t talk about that today, though, as I’m writing about something else, his yard. Harry loved that backyard, and though I suspect, in terms of its comeliness, Reverend Griffith might have failed to see why anyone might love it, no doubt he grasped its importance to Harry as a refuge from the troubles of life, a place where he could go and think—or rather be still—and, as he said, pray. No doubt Reverend Griffith admired the latter—he was, after all, a Presbyterian minister—and he likely knew that for Harry praying started with writing; he knew, too, that writing, reflecting and praying took place in Harry’s backyard on a regular basis. That much anyone who ever knew Harry would have known, for he was gentle and kind. And, as if on his behalf, the tiny yard seemed to divulge as much.

 

Texas Hill Country
Texas Hill Country
San Antonio
San Antonio

My Italian friends would call even such a postage-stamp-sized backyard as my grandfather had, a giardino. Now this is important not simply because Italians have the unique capacity to make all things sound more beautiful than they really are but because they also have the capacity of pointing out the beauty in something that you might otherwise have overlooked. For example, while most of my American friends from the eastern coast of the country are essentially allergic to Texas, my Italian friends are not. One and all, they love the state, and find great beauty in its prairies, shoreline, Hill Country and, among its cities, San Antonio in particular. Thus, I’m sure that Harry’s Italian friends referred to his tiny yard as his giardino. I’m sure they said, “Your giardino, it is beautiful!”—saying as much in a comely and robust Italian accent, of course.

And they likely said the same of the mimosa in the front yard, a small tree that Blanche adored. And then there were two or three rose bushes that Harry tended dutifully. These entwined a lattice that ran along the side of the house by the carport, next to the door that opened, after five ascending steps, into the kitchen. Next to that rose bush was a heavy, thick, oblong stone about a foot in length, into which Harry had faintly carved “Harry + Blanche,” a lover’s whisper, hand-engraved, time-defying. That rock marked the holy temenos that made their yard, small as it was, a place of beauty and wonder whose paltry amount of flora and fauna was more than enough. It was a giardino.

That’s where Reverend Griffith sat with my future grandparents—for Blanche had joined the men, as Jemima had taken the girls out for a stroll with her sister Elizabeth Ann—drinking iced tea and eating Hen Sir cheese, the Welsh cheese that oddly came to symbolize spiritual renewal in our family. But all of this is, of course, wryly chronicled in The Curious Autobiography. And so they chatted, speaking about topics that the cleric liked, such as God’s sovereignty, mercy and charity, and topics that Harry liked, such as his hope to get a job away from the coal mines, the threat of war in Europe, and how good Hen Sir was with a smidgen of strawberry jam (for Blanche had included that with the homemade biscuits). And how much he appreciated that the reverend now preached sermons in Welsh and English both, as Harry confessed that his Welsh was lacking.

Ocean Grove
Ocean Grove

They also spoke of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where there was another view altogether, not of a giardino, but of the majestic Atlantic, which will be the topic of another blog.

Bay of Naples
Bay of Naples

So the conversation went. Now I myself have seen some pretty superb views, such as the Bay of Naples, as I peered out from behind a well-placed sphinx, to the view of Baltic Sea from Vogelfluglinie ferry that brings you to incomparable Copenhagen. I’ve walked upon Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, thrown a Frisbee in the Villa Doria Pamphilij, where far and wide one can see Respighi’s inspiration on display.

Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij
Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij

I’ve visited the amazing Abbey district of St. Gallen and gawked at the heaven-like interior of the abbey library—mirable visu—not to mention the Alps themselves, in which the town of St. Gallen is nestled. But I say Harry and Blanche’s giardino was a finer view than any of these.

St. Gallen library
St. Gallen library

 

Sappho
Portrait Bust of Sappho

In one of her most amazing poems, the Greek poet Sappho puts it this way, “some say an army of cavalry, or infantry, or sailors is the most beautiful thing across this coal-black earth, but I say it is whatever you love” (fgt. 16). A giardino is no army, but it springs from the coal-black earth and it is a place that one can love. It was a place of love for Harry and Blanche, whether that love be merely recorded upon a great round rock that I now have in my own giardino or it be seen in the occasional rose that Harry would harvest for Blanche from the rose bush, or it be simply the love they shared with the visiting Reverend Griffith over a cooling glass of tea, some homemade biscuits, and a bite of Hen Sir. That giardino framed their home the way a picture frames a painting. That home and its yard was the place where they created a family with their two daughters and with their aunt Jemima.

So the view was, for Blanche and Harry, Lee Ann and Elaine, pretty fine from that house on Rutter Avenue. As I see it, it surpassed the Baltic, the Bay of Naples and the Jersey Shore. Their view was more encompassing than just a giardino. It was what so many of us crave beyond anything else in this life, a family and a home, a place where Jemima, just before she died saw an angel. But I have spoken of angels in a previous blog; and I imagine I will again. For now, I shall simply look at my small backyard, which is perhaps two postage stamps in size—but the cost of mailing a letter has gone up over the years—and I shall think of Harry and Blanche’s view. Maybe my own is not that different after all. Yes, I like the view from here.

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