The Picket Fence Debate

My hollyhocks bloom later than others I see around town. Yesterday I mentioned this to my husband as we drove past a spray of them exploding in a deep magenta burst over a tall wall in someone else’s yard.

“Yours are wild,” he said like this explained everything.

It’s true…sort of. About ten years ago I bought a few packets of hollyhock seeds and planted them in our backyard. This was when we had a fenced off area in the back to keep the dogs at bay. Fence is a generous term. Let me explain.

One of the dogs had pooped in my Chile pepper patch.

After the poop, I said to my husband, “We should build a picket fence to keep the dogs out of my garden.” I’ve always liked picket fences.

When my husband doesn’t want to do what I suggest he says things like, “Sure, we could do that.” He says it in his usual kind voice…with only the tiniest extra emphasis on the word could. Then he does what I’ve come to recognize as buying time.

He goes to Home Depot.

He came home with Day-Glo orange plastic sheeting, the kind used at crime scenes when yellow tape won’t do. And a handful of zip-ties and long spikes of rebar. Within an hour, I had a fence. Afterwards, off and on, we continued the picket fence debate. He had built the Day-Glo crime scene fence, so he didn’t need to say much more about his position. Clearly, he was against it. As is my habit, I researched the history of the picket fence to gain a deeper understanding of its cultural significance to support my side of the discussion.

Turns out the picket has a sordid past. Picket derives from the French word piquer, to pierce, and piquet, pointed stake. These piquets were used to stab horses during military clashes. The picket was also used as a form of torture. In 1706, to stand upon the picket described what a naughty soldier would be made to do. One hand was tied high above his head and then he had to balance on a picket with the tippy toe of his opposing bare foot, so “he could neither stand, nor hang well.” I’m still not clear on what it means to “hang well.” As a person fond of horses and human beings, this information was troubling. On the up side, standing picket also came to refer to soldiers who stand guard. Very heroic. Pickets were also taken up, with signs tacked to them, to become one of the icons of action for labor reform and social justice. Crossing a picket line turned people into scabs. Not heroic. And the white picket fence evolved into a symbol of middle class suburban America.

In the rebuttal stage of the debate, my husband offered something like, “They are kitch.” He may have added, “I just don’t like them.”

I countered with an acknowledgement that while the single picket had a violent history, the fence itself is still an icon of the American Dream…and they are pretty when flowers bloom over and through them.

I didn’t keep a court-reporter-quality record of this discourse, but it carried on while the hollyhocks grew eight feet tall, bloomed, went to seed, died and the garden went fallow. I think I had a second baby.

Even though we haven’t reached resolution on the philosophical underpinnings of the picket fence, each spring hollyhocks come up on our property. I encourage them by collecting the flat black seeds and scattering them all around. They stopped coming up in the backyard, especially after the crime scene fence deteriorated and we got another dog. They emerge where they please, usually in low spots where water pools and in the shade of walls. But they always bloom late.

Perhaps they bloom late to remind me to be patient. It helps to be patient when it comes to anything involving my husband and things that send him to Home Depot to buy time.P1050873 cropped

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