A Passion for Ponds

San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, May 22, 2005

I was about six years old when I first recognized that my dad was different from the other fathers on our block. While they spent their weekends playing golf and mowing lawns, my dad spent his Saturdays and Sundays in our backyard, mixing concrete. He was hard at work on The Ponds.

Constructed of hundreds of rough, rust-colored stones set into mortar, The Ponds, when completed, graced the entire perimeter of our suburban backyard patio. With the flip of a switch, water gurgled from the tops of rocky grottoes that Dad had mounded high into the patio’s corners. Tumbling from pool to pool, illumined by colored lights, flowing past exotic, tropical plants, the rushing water created a charmed, lilting circle of sound. It was a taste of Tahiti in South Central L.A.; it was Walt Disney’s Tiki Room in miniature; it was Hawaii on a really tight budget. And Dad built it single handedly.

I don’t know what possessed my father to dig that first hole next to the garage. Some deep, relentless impulse must have compelled him though, because for years every spare moment of his time would be devoted to The Ponds.

The first pool, about six feet long and three feet wide, fringed with stones and inhabited by a scattering of goldfish, had been a prototype – a test, to see if Dad’s grand concept would actually hold water. After completing it, he must have drawn up some kind of blueprint because the pools that followed were much too symmetrical to have been constructed on the fly. Besides, Dad was no artist following some haphazard muse. He was an accountant – a numbers man. He would have figured out in advance the precise size of each pond and the exact height necessary to maintain the fall of water from one pool to the next. Dad wasn’t the kind to leave anything to chance.

I can’t even begin to guess the number of hours that he put into planning, building and maintaining The Ponds, although I’m sure that he must have had a fair idea. Undoubtedly, my mother kept a running tab. I sometimes wonder what her response was when her accountant spouse first informed her that he wanted to install a series of cascading waterfalls, complete with colored lights, music, water lilies, orchids, carp, crawfish, frogs, turtles, a mynah bird and the occasional pet alligator – all in our suburban backyard. I imagine it was similar to the reaction Mrs. Noah must have had when her land-locked, farmer husband announced that he’d decided to take up shipbuilding. She would have nodded absently, muttered “Yes, dear,” and then prayed that the madness – or whatever it was – would pass.

Dad and Noah, though, were two of a kind. The madness didn’t pass. Once Dad mortared that first pond, there was no going back. He threw himself into the task with body, mind and spirit. He labored in summer heat and winter chill, painstakingly mixing cement and hauling stones by hand, alone, in spite of scrapes and bruises, and back problems that dated from WWII.

I remember seeing him, freckled chest bared, pouring cement into a wheelbarrow; or on his knees with a trowel, carefully setting a stone at just the right spot. The work never ended, really. Once The Ponds were completed, there were refinements to be added. He hooked up a sound system. He inserted a television set into the patio wall so he could watch baseball on summer afternoons. He constructed a hothouse behind the garage to cultivate the orchids that, when coaxed into bloom, bordered the pools. Pumps and light bulbs had to be replaced, mosquitoes repelled, water plants nurtured, algae eradicated. The maintenance tasks were endless.

Who can say what drove him? Perhaps it was the need to express himself, something that his accounting career didn’t allow. Maybe he wanted to prove, if only to himself, that he actually had an artistic side. Certainly nothing that he did in his life, before or after, approached the scope and scale of those elegant waterfalls.
In later years, Dad loved to relate an incident about The Ponds, a story that he told often and with relish, always concluding it with a rueful headshake. My grandmother had come to visit, making the long train journey west from Chicago to Los Anegles. Dad had completed about half of his project, and he proudly escorted his mother out back to show her the fruits of his labor: four ponds set against the left side of our patio wall. She gazed at them in silence for a few moments, then looked my dad square in the eye and said, ever so gently, “Son, you’re crazy.”

I suppose he was a little crazy. Passion, whether it’s for a person or for a dream, tends to nudge us towards sanity’s tattered, restless edge. Dad’s passion for his ponds lasted for decades, outlasting even his passion for my mom. Thirty-three years after they were married, he filed for divorce. Unlike other husbands in similar circumstances, though, he steadfastly refused to leave the house. Ignoring my mother’s fury and the attorneys’ dismay, Dad resisted walking out that front door until the courts forced him to go. I’ve often wondered why that was, but could never bring myself to do more than speculate. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t help clinging to a home filled with memories of happier times. Or maybe the accountant in him simply hated to relinquish that long-term property investment. My hunch, though, is that it was his other passion that kept him tethered there, as immovable as mortared stone. Dad just couldn’t bear to turn his back on The Ponds.

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