No Manual Required

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STORY BY DREW ZANDONELLA-STANNARD
ART BY KATIE EBERTS

flowers_housesI have always maintained that if you want to get to know someone infinitely better, all you need to do is meet their parents. This year, I’ve learned that you can gauge how someone feels about their parents by telling them that yours are building a house in your backyard.

From the beginning, it was always the three of us: my mothers and me. I was raised by two delightfully stubborn women who have never let anyone determine their fate, whether that meant having a baby as a lesbian couple in 1984, opening Seattle’s first woman-owned coffee roastery, or countless other quietly subversive actions that have enabled our family to thrive.

Growing up, we had a little garden behind our house on the north side of Seattle. Sometime in the 1960s, a diligent crew built an impenetrable rockery into the sloping hillside – not exactly ideal terrain for our fledgling oasis. You don’t always get to choose your plot.

Still, my mothers dug in, planting succulents and ferns, along with herbs that do well in the Pacific Northwest. They tackled seemingly endless blackberry bushes, eventually clearing enough space to grow a patch of vegetables and sunflowers. As a kid, I tried to resist getting dirty at all costs, but I’ve always been a sucker for a good transformation. That summer, the sunflowers we planted grew taller than my head, and that fall, we feasted on endless pots of soup and spaghetti sauce culled from our garden’s harvest.

Fast-forward a few decades, and I now I have a home – and a garden – of my own. When my husband Jacob and I recently purchased our first house, an old Craftsman bungalow, we started discussing the possibility of building a backyard cottage for my parents, Meredith and Elyse, to retire to. Since then, we’ve hired a contractor, knocked over an existing garage, and hoped for the best.

I’m oversimplifying, of course.

In the earliest phases of this project, I sought out resources for retirees “aging in place,” as it’s called. Like most things my family has embarked upon together, there’s no clear manual just yet. Family contracts exist for adult children moving back in with their parents, but not the other way around. Unlike the grandparents of my friends I knew growing up, my mothers won’t be living in our basement. Or in a bedroom off of the kitchen. Our homes will be side by side, small and large, sharing a garden.

When you’re building a home, landscaping comes last. Where we’ve planned to sow our future garden is currently a muddy backyard full of puddles from a rainy Northwest winter. Balmy winds blew over the Honey Bucket that has taken up residence on our parking strip for the duration of the project. And yet, there’s so much to look forward to. I’ve taken to strapping on my rain boots and standing in the mud, coffee in hand, envisioning sunnier days.

Twenty-five years after that first garden, we’re still planning for the seasons ahead, dreaming of raised beds and Sunday dinners. I can imagine an evening not too long from now with a big batch of ratatouille on the stove, the recipe adapted from my mothers’ sauce-stained copy of the Moosewood Cookbook.

Our family has always carved out space for ourselves wherever we’re able to fit. When we laid the foundation for the cottage, I scratched the date into the soft cement, encircling it with a heart. After weathering our first winter we’ll cultivate another garden together. There’s no clear manual for this project, but we’ll find our way. We always have.

Drew Zandonella-Stannard is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. To learn more about her family and their home visit abackyardcottage.com.

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