The Wall

Charlotte was the wife of my dad’s boss. Knowing I, a college student, needed to make all the money I could, she offered me the job of keeping their lawn neat and orderly.

One day, she asked me if I’d ever built anything of rock, like a rock wall. I told her I hadn’t. Then she asked if I’d be willing to give it a try. I told her I would, but that she had to realize I’d be learning as I went. By the end of the week, the three tons of rock slabs she’d ordered had been dumped in their driveway. Okay, she said with a smile, the rest is up to you.

From the front of their house and extending toward the back, the landscaped lawn on the south side sloped downward, then dropped sharply about four feet to their driveway. The slope, too steep to mow or to plant with ground cover, was eroding with every heavy rain, covering a large area of the driveway with mud. The solution: A wall about twenty feet long, its height gradually tapering downward from about four feet. Charlotte wanted the decorative look of a stone wall, flat slabs simply resting on each other with no cement in between.

My tools were a shovel for shaping the soil for the foundation and filling soil in behind the wall, a sledgehammer for breaking the rock, and an axe and small hammer for my attempts to shape each slab.

That first layer of rock had to be right, level with each slab being about the same thickness and placed right at the edge of the driveway without extending over it. From then on, each slab had to overlap each other with each layer fitting well atop the layer below it. Also, each layer had to be recessed about an inch so the wall followed the angle of the slope.

The work was backbreaking and required many tedious judgement calls as I hammered and fit each rock into position with tired, aching, and blistered hands. Through it all, however, I never looked at it as a job, but rather as a challenge.

I was about to find out if I really did know how to build a stone wall, not as the result of experience or being blessed with sheer luck, but simply applying logic and good sense in shaping and placing one stone at a time, so as to make them compatible with each other.

All I knew for sure was that, when finished, the wall would reveal that either I did know how or I didn’t. I’d either delight myself and Charlotte, or she would regret ever getting the idea, and regretting even more she’d asked me to do it.

Three weeks later, I put the last stone in place.

I knew Charlotte well enough to know she always meant what she said. You can imagine how delighted I was when after I’d finished the wall, carefully manicured all the soil behind it, and gotten rid of the last of the mess on the driveway, she stood there, smiled, and told me how beautiful it looked.

A few years ago, I stopped by that house for the first time in a long time. After all, it’s almost 500 miles from where I now live. The couple living there were the second owners after Charlotte and her husband had passed away. I explained to the man who came to the door that I was there to check on “my wall.” He said it was doing fine. I looked at the wall for the longest time, took a few pictures, and left.

Two years ago, I drove by the house again, pulled up to the curb and took a good look. The wall is still there, with all the stones where I’d placed them sixty-five years before. Again, a wave of reassurance swept over me, caused me to think that maybe such things are at least a part of what life is all about.

Maybe you’ve created something tangible that attests to the strong fiber and faith within you.

For me, it’s a wall, so plain, yet so special that only I can tell you how it came to be, what it was like to build, and why it has created such a sense of enduring pride.