If You Build it, They Will Come

This summer we built a pond. Our sons were 16 and 12, and our daughter was 10. They grew up in Montessori classrooms that were beautiful. Communities were carefully prepared where they learned to concentrate, read, collaborate, and master difficult tasks. Their teachers instilled a deep reverence for the natural world. They are good readers, hard workers, and respectful kids we have always enjoyed spending time with.

For several age-appropriate reasons, it has lately been hard to do things as a family. It is also extraordinarily difficult to find tasks that would engage their minds and their bodies. Our boys are growing so fast now, they spend the bulk of many days eating and sleeping. At some point in most conversations about road trips, bike rides, gardening, or trips to the parks and festivals that used to thrill them, one of the boys will usually ask, “do I have to?” So this summer, instead of a family vacation, we built a pond in our own backyard.

Like most amateur projects, building a pond was much harder than we expected, and took weeks longer than we predicted. It’s finished now, full of fish, tadpoles with little legs, and aquatic plants. It’s a simple design, like a Beatrix Potter illustration, except instead of a peaceful white kitten perched on the edge of the water, we have a rowdy black spaniel and a Labrador puppy. Our dogs enjoy the pond by barking at the fish, lapping the water, and occasionally falling in.

It was our oldest son’s idea to build a pond. When we moved into our home three years ago, he pointed at a recessed area of our tiny backyard and said, “that’s the perfect spot for a pond.” At the time, we thought his idea was ridiculous. We finally agreed to build a pond for reasons that only make sense if you surrender to the peculiar logic of teens. They said they had always wanted bullfrog tadpoles, and they had identified a spot for hammock poles.

Pond-building procedures are, at the time, and in retrospect, incredibly tedious. We checked all the pond-building books out from our public library, sketched plans and ideas, bought a third shovel, and took turns digging until our arms, legs, lower backs, and feet ached. Spreading mulch is a dirty, miserable job in July. The low point was losing hold of the wheelbarrow in the front yard, watching a full load of mulch falls into the grass. The high point was watching our middle son set his rake aside and persuade his big brother to take phone photos of him. He stood on a stone in the middle of the pond, striking the yoga balancing poses he first learned in his primary Montessori class. He was covered with pre-teen sweat and dirt. “We don’t want to forget this moment, mom.”

We made three trips to a local quarry. Altogether, we hauled more than 2000 pounds of rock home in our mini-van. On our third trip from the drive-on scale to the quarry office where we would pay for our rocks, I noticed the sign on the door, “No sandals or children in the quarry.”

“Oops,” I said. “At least we all have tennis shoes on.” My kids were covered in dust, still wearing work gloves. “Good thing I didn’t see that sign. I needed your help.” It was an honest mistake. I did not intentionally break the rules, but I do also know that three kids were engaged in work that was incredibly difficult because their labor was essential. They knew I could not haul that much rock without their help. Breaking the rule was worth it. Purposeful work is as motivating for teens as it is for three-year-olds.

We toted the rocks into our backyard, one or two at a time, washed them with the garden hose, and began stacking, arranging, and re-arranging. My husband installed a filter, built a waterfall around the pump, and installed three small lights. Then we added goldfish and tadpoles. It was a fine, fine moment.

Several weeks later, grandma called. She was at a local garden shop, looking at fish. Could she buy one fish and put it in our pond, she wondered. She wanted permission, and she wanted to make sure her fish was different, so she could distinguish it from the others. “That way, I’ll have my own fish to look for when I come over.” Grandma’s fish is the only black and orange koi. When she comes, she knows who to look for.

Our oldest son says he’d like to build a small bridge next summer, a task he mastered in his elementary Montessori class years ago. Building a bridge would be an appropriate task for a young man just two years away from college. He is already the tallest member of the family, already venturing away from us in ways that are both wonderful and, for us, a little sad.

One Saturday evening during pond construction, my freshly showered, the exhausted husband said he had recently paused in the hallway, in front of the shelves that remain full of children’s storybooks. Our kids have outgrown bedtime stories, but we have not yet put the books in storage. “I read those books every night for years,” he said. “I feel like they are part of me.”

Our hope is that building a pond will be something like that, for our children, and for us. When they are grown, we hope we will stand beside our pond, step on the stones we hauled, walk across the bridge we have not yet built, and feel like the pond is a part of the life of our family, hard work, imperfect, alive, and growing.

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