Our first house, it was a labor of love. We poured ourselves into it. I often long for that home, the rewarding feeling of sitting amidst our personal efforts, and of course it’s itty-bitty mortgage. Looking back, that house was our dream, it was our home, and was more than enough. But as we grow up, we get disillusioned with bigger and better. But that’s not the point here.
In that home, as a freshly married young couple we raced onto dreams quickly and nothing felt impossible. We were young in so many ways, and we willingly let home improvement endeavors take on a life of their own. We were on a first name basis with the staff at Home Depot and the local nursery. One such task was putting in the back yard. It seemed like such a great idea. I drew up a plan and brought it to life with my colored pencils. As my husband ordered the backyard materials, I eagerly awaited what would become our dream backyard. I envisioned myself in pink gardening gloves armed with my little bucket of tools; I would soon be planting seeds, growing parsley, peppers, and pansies.
I must have been slightly naïve, which is a key ingredient to starting anything brave, because apparently I had no idea what I had committed myself to the day the dump truck deposited a mountain of topsoil in our driveway. My husband said, “well lets get started!” And I stood there dumbfounded as the truck drove away and no one from the “dirt company” stayed behind to get the soil into our backyard.
It was a warm spring day. I donned jean shorts and a t-shirt, sturdy rake in hand waiting for the first wheelbarrow of dirt my husband would bring me. I was still thinking, “okay, this is a little different from what I expected, but it will be fun and in a couple of hours we’ll be finished and can rest in patio shade, enjoying sandwiches and a cold beer for lunch”. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow I worked quickly to evenly spread the dirt around a little one-square-yard area before the next load arrived. It didn’t take long for blisters to rise on my hands. I headed to the garage to look for work gloves, and that’s when I noticed the load of dirt in the driveway…it hadn’t changed size! My mind raced quickly for logic; perhaps another load of dirt was delivered while I was working away in the backyard. My husband noticed my saucer-sized eyes and laughed; he knew what was going through my head as he said, “come on – we’ve got a long day ahead of us”. At one point I thought I might cry, but I trudged back to the barren backyard, pulled my husband’s stiff leather gloves over my blisters and cringed as I picked up the rake to smooth over 3 new piles that had formed in my absence. Lunchtime was quickly approaching and we were nowhere near the end.
Another hour of labor had passed and I was getting hungry; and I hadn’t seen my husband for at least ten minutes. Curiosity got the better of me, and I headed back out to the driveway. There in the driveway my husband and a larger-than-life black man wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, were laughing and talking. I knew this man from the day we moved in; that first day he showed up on our doorstep, introduced himself as “Tom” and handed me a liter bottle of coke, red plastic cups, and a bag of ice. He said, “you need anything, you just let me know; and when you’re all settled in, come on down for a glass of camel juice.” I didn’t know what camel juice was…but I truly appreciated the cold soda and ice.
Again I must have stood there with saucer-shaped eyes, as I was utterly confused with Tom’s presence in our driveway. I noticed that thankfully the pile of dirt seemed slightly decreased from our efforts over the last several hours. I also noticed a new wheelbarrow next to ours. Tom looked at my disheveled ponytail and dirt-sweat stained shirt; with the biggest smile he said, “Didn’t I tell ya to let me know if you needed anything, did you think movin’ dirt was too good for a black man?” I was stunned and speechless by his self-deprecating racist humor, but Tom put me right at ease with a hearty laugh and said, “I’m just teasing you girl, well let’s get this done!” And with that, Tom and my husband were working double time getting the soil to the back yard. I simply couldn’t keep up with them. Before long, Tom took the rake from my hands and said, “you looked whipped, go inside now, we’ve got it from here.” My muscles were thankful to be relieved. I asked Tom if he wanted anything to drink, he responded questioningly, “don’t suppose you’ve got a beer around do you?” With delight, I said of course, and ran into the house and brought back several varieties for him to choose from. It was the least I could do for all the help he gave us. Tom’s eyes lit up with the brewed choices I brought to him, and after his first big gulp he let out a satisfying AHHHH, and said, “I was worried you folk weren’t the drinkin’ type since you never came down for that camel juice.” I apologized for our un-neighborly ways and said I didn’t know what “camel juice” was. He assured me I would like it, and that we would celebrate the hard day’s work with a glass of it and some good food. Before I went back into the house, Tom snagged another beer from my arms.
Later that evening, the back yard was covered with a perfect layer of soil, and I had scrubbed myself free of all the dirt and cared for the tender blisters on my hands. My husband and I walked down to Tom’s house. His wife welcomed us in, she was the gregarious type; their home was filled with African artifacts and smelled of wonderful food. We had no hostess gift to give them, and I could tell it didn’t matter. Tom was happy to have us for company. We sat in their backyard and enjoyed wonderfully grilled food, good company and yes, camel juice. Camel juice? Well, that’s an entirely different story, and one worth telling…another time. What I will tell you is that he learned how to make it during the war, he brewed it in his garage – always taking part of the last batch to create the new, and he always had a couple jugs of fresh “juice” in an Igloo chest available at all times.
I can’t think back on that first home of ours, without thinking of Tom. He was a beacon of light in that neighborhood. He had his good days and bad; some days he had too much camel juice and it became clear that despite his best efforts, he was no angel. But Tom had a heart of gold when he tried, and he knew what it meant to love his neighbors as himself. He never sought for anything except to help and offer friendship to others; perfection was never a requirement.