I was several hellish days into a summer job mowing lawns and tending to senior citizens living alone when the assignment came in, to help a woman in South Minneapolis with something or other in her yard.
The rickety house hidden behind the trees in a fairly desirable neighborhood was hard to find among all of the crisp lawns, tidy homes and school yards. A neighbor insisted that atop the hill at the end of the driveway was a little woman in her 80s living on her own with a very well-fed dog.
Up the hill and over the broken concrete steps that cut through the crabgrass was a plateau with a small yard full of odd contraptions, coffee cans, an old lawn chair and, stunningly, a perfectly circular garden with rows of red flowers and concrete slabs.
A screen door opened, and we pet her dog. She talked about all the “stuff” lying around that drove her crazy, and we got to work, pulling weeds, mending fences, moving metal objects from one side of the yard to the other. We bought concrete, mixed concrete, fixed the stairs and ran errands.
The summer ended, but I stayed. We chipped the ice from her stairs in winter, poured salt on the frozen pathways and made sure that the extension cord leading to the heating mechanism in the garbage can that melted the makeshift bird bath was protected. We secured the tethered coffee cans that were used to block the squirrels from accessing the bird feeders. Eventually, we prepared for spring.
One summer day I couldn’t find her. But through the sunlight, there she was, on the roof, chained to the chimney, repairing holes and nailing shingles. She called my name and waved hello, hammer in hand.
Years later, the nursing home room she’d been moved to had a familiarity to it—stuff piled everywhere, a pet bird on her shoulder and a garden on the grounds outside the window. Too much “stuff,” she said. She shook her head and we smiled.