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December, 2004

Vacant Lot

by Valerie

We moved to a house on the main street in Lemont, IL, in 1967, when I was nine years old. Since we were right downtown, the streets were generally laid out in a grid pattern, attempting to conform to the hilly terrain with limited success. Our house was the only one in the block that faced out onto State Street, one of the busiest routes through our little village. On the downhill side of us was a house on a corner lot, with their main entrance facing the side street. On the uphill side was a vacant lot.

Having just lived for several years in a rural area, we were used to having large fields in which to play. While this smaller, rectangular plot was a far cry from the wild, meandering meadows we had left, it quickly became a focal point for our outdoor games. Although surrounded by houses, sidewalks, city streets, and a church, the vacant lot was rarely mowed and throughout the warm months often had a tall crop of grass and weeds. It was quite a contrast to the well-maintained lawns, gardens and landscaping that adorned all the other land parcels in the area. There were only a pair of large trees amidst all the plants, and these were back in the corner near our lot and that of the adjoining neighbor.

Besides grass, there were various weeds and wildflowers. In the very early spring, a multitude of grape hyacinths would poke up through the flattened dead grass, first with their bright green stringy leaves, then with their deep purple flowers. Other plants, whose names I didn't know, would grow tall and branching, just like miniature trees. There were animals living in the undisturbed grass and we often found evidence of rabbits, mice and shrews. When the grass got to be several feet tall, my sister and I could create tunnels and pathways, remaining hidden below the sea of green. Just like the rabbits and rodents, we enjoyed the seclusion of that prairie jungle.

The wildlife that resided in the lot had to cope with the occasional mowing, at which time a nest of baby rabbits or field mice might suddenly be uncovered. The animals didn't stay in the vacant lot, either. We often had mice invading our house and one winter a rabbit crossed over our driveway and spent quite a bit of time in the shelter of a little patio we had adjacent to a bathroom. We had built a privacy fence around the large sliding glass doors that looked out past our driveway to the open field beyond. Because of the tall fence, we could have the drapes open for light and had a small view of the sky, the tall trees in the vacant lot, and the bit of garden down around the base of the patio. It was delightful, then, to see a little cottontail rabbit escape the deep snow and settle in just a couple of feet from the window. We even put out dog food, which it enthusiastically consumed. At other times we saw birds in the upper tree limbs. There was no need for reading material in that bathroom as the little private garden outside the doors was plenty of entertainment.

Although the vacant lot was usually simply a haven for wildlife, a playground, and a fragment of wildness in the city, it was also once the cause for some excitement. One autumn, a fire started in the corner nearest the main road, probably from a tossed cigarette. The tall, dry grass burned exceptionally well and the fire was raging in no time. Our house was in little danger because we had a driveway between it and the fire, but our neighbor's garage was only a couple feet from the edge of the tall grass. In an unusual display of efficiency, our local fire department arrived before even half of the field was burned and quickly doused the flames.

My bedroom window faced the vacant lot. From that vantage point, I could enjoy the smell of the grass during the summer when I had the window open, or gaze at the gently rolling mounds of fresh snow sparkling under the street lights in the winter evenings. Beyond the vacant lot and the next street, up the hill from our house, was a church. The bells were sounded three times a day: 7:00 AM, 12:00 noon, and 6:00 PM. We grew so used to them that if they had failed to ring, we might be startled by the silence.

After I had left home for college, and just before my parents moved away when they retired, a house was built on the vacant lot. While it shouldn't have surprised me, considering the rising property values, I had come to think of that plot as more permanent and unchanging than would be reasonable for such a prime parcel of real estate. The new house dominated the site, seeming to tower precariously over the sloping earth, and it appeared to be too large in proportion to the yard. Considering that our house, and many of the surrounding homes, were over 100 years old, I'm sure that there had been some sort of building there in the distant past, but it was still hard to say good-bye to the vacant lot with which I grew up.

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