“Do you know the combination?” my husband asks as he hands me an old brass lock he has dug out of the shed. As the lock arrives in my palm, my spirit lifts, a rush of sweet memory flooding me. I quickly dial the combination and pop the lock open: “Zero, zero, zero, zero.”
My father, a locksmith, had set the combination. The lock is from our old garage in Rockaway, the door of which could have been kicked in quicker than the combination set. But the lock was a deterrent, and my father made the combination easy to remember—and, I imagine to his mind, too obvious to guess. Holding the lock made me think of the lyric from Porgy and Bess, “Folks with plenty of plenty, they got a lock on their door, afraid somebody’s gonna rob them while they’re out making more, what for?”
It would be disingenuous to pretend I do not secure my possessions. The reality of theft and greater perils came to me by the time I was ten, when my parents joined the ranks of other store owners and put up gates across the windows and entrance to our paint and hardware store in Brooklyn, New York.
Quickly the gates became a part of everyday life. We lived in an apartment over the store, and my father would close and lock the gates when he came upstairs for supper. In the summer, when we children were allowed to stay outside in the evenings, we unlocked and relocked the gates as we passed through.
Many years later, when I returned from my first visit to the Hill Country of Texas, I kept dreaming of large gates and fences. I was unaccustomed to this Texas aesthetic, shared by those who could afford only a humble metal gate to those who could build elaborate entrance edifices. I was accustomed to the largely unfenced East Coast countryside.
I’ve since learned that fences were originally erected by farmers to protect their crops from livestock, but by the 1880s fences began to be used to keep livestock in as well. Since then, fences, and their gates, have evolved. There are fences to show ownership akin to dominion; fences to keep out the uninvited and unwanted; high fences to keep wildlife in because it is seen as owned property; high fences to keep the wildlife out because it destroys vegetation; and, still, fences to keep in livestock. Entrance gates, in their composition, typically establish the owners’ financial status. Sometimes the gate outshines the abode within.
There was one fence in my early life, though, that along with its multiple gates set apart a world of immeasurable value. From a noisy, dirty, concrete world I passed through these gates and stepped onto what seemed to me the yellow brick road through the Land of Oz: the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. The gates to the Gardens were locked at night, but in the morning visitors were allowed to pass freely (and years ago, literally so) into this priceless paradise. In the midst of an urban environment this oasis provided me a haven and a glimpse of the world that beckoned me to its reaches. It was a world of green, of flowering trees and shrubs, of perennials and annuals, of lily ponds and streams, and of fruit and vegetables. There were dragonflies, bees, and butterflies, birds and squirrels, fish and tadpoles. There, from a generation of female horticulturalists and botanists now extinct, I learned to turn soil, plant seeds, pull weeds, and tend my crops. There I found beauty that reached beyond what humans could create. At a young age I recognized the world held within the Gardens offered me a serenity that filled an inherent need. The fence and gates protected the Gardens, but they also reminded us that we were entering a world to be cherished.
The old combination lock spends most of its time in a drawer. Its use is occasional and transitory. We have no fences or gates on our little piece of Texas.