My neighbors use their back yard a lot; they have barbeques, they play games. I enjoy hearing their outdoor antics. This summer they built a pergola in the far corner of their lawn. Construction workers buzzed happy saws for a week erecting the folly. I expected that once finished they would spend even more time in their yard. But they did not. Instead, upon finishing their playful structure their house went quiet.
It’s a two-family house, a style common to Cambridge, and their family is quintessentially Cambridge. Ilsa is a near-retirement social worker with a lingering Eastern European accent. She lives upstairs with her younger daughter, who recently finished her own Master’s in Social Work and her daughter’s Haitian boyfriend. Ilsa’s son Sam lives downstairs with his Asian wife and their two tall and thin daughters.
I wondered about the quiet, but we are urban neighbors, which means we keep a respectful distance. One evening in late July I met Ilsa while gardening. Before I could even congratulate her on the pergola I realized something was not right. Ilsa asked rapid questions about dampproofing and mold remediation and other unsavory aspects of construction she thought I, as an architect, might know. Finally she revealed that Sam’s oldest daughter had been diagnosed with leukemia, was in Boston Children’s Hospital on an experimental protocol, would be home within a month, but needed to return to a highly antiseptic environment.
Construction noise resumed, but there was nothing cheerful about the masonry drills and drainage pumps, vapor barriers and mechanical systems they installed to turn their creaky old house into a dust-free / low humidity environment for the fragile girl. The work is complete, Sam’s daughter is home, and though they appreciate the brownies we bring, the family has grown understandably inward.
I have yet to see or hear anyone swing under the pergola. Still, I’m glad they built it when they did; if they’d waited even another month it would have been deemed a frivolous excess. The pergola is an aspiration – it’s where they’ll go once the horror of devastating disease is behind them, and they can all emerge outdoors to play again.