There is a park in Spokane, Washington, called Manito. It’s the crown jewel of the city, the place my family always takes out of town guests when they come to visit. It’s 90 acres of formal and informal gardens, fountains, a conservatory. When my family first moved to Spokane, when I was 7, we would sometimes make the 25 minute drive to the park to spend the day. In the cool of the evening we would walk around the Rose Garden and I would take note of all of the rose names like “Queen Elizabeth” and “Pretty in Pink.”
Occasionally, we would go to picnics at the Upper Manito playground and the other kids and I would move the picnic tables, covered with dark green, peeling paint, behind the swings. We mounted them, the swings around our legs, and jumped off for maximum lift.
Once, with friends, I stripped down to my underwear and went swimming in the fountain in the middle of a traditional English garden. It was cold, and my friend’s father made us put back all of the change we had collected.
We always walk through the Lilac Garden in April, breathing in the heady fragrance. Spokane is known as the Lilac City. Families and couples cluster close together for pictures during the high point of the season. Choose any weekend in spring or summer and you’ll catch a glimpse of prom-goers, or a wedding party.
Our next house was blocks away from Manito Park.
Often, in the evenings, I would walk a little ways to Upper Manito and swing by myself, sometimes bringing a friend, or my MP3 player (long before I had a cell phone, let alone one that would store music). I would swing and think, sorting out the problems of the day, sometimes praying. I went there whenever I had an unrequited crush, or when I was waiting for a phone call. I went there the day before I left for South Korea when I was 19, my first trip overseas without my family. I went when I was stressed out at work.
They have re-done the swings and the playground equipment since our days of jumping off the picnic tables, and added a splash pad, but the baseball diamond is still there, and those picnic tables are still peeling.
Over the years, I walked with many friends through that park. Now, when I return, I hear snatches of conversations, I see snapshots of people I don’t know anymore. In a grassy area beside the English garden with the fountain, I can almost see my beloved dog when she was a puppy, chasing after a tennis ball, and I have to remind myself that she’s not with us anymore.
I sat on a bench in the Perennial Gardens after my first breakup and told a childhood friend that I was fine.
“You don’t have to be fine,” she said.
When I moved out of my parents house, my new place was near enough to walk to Manito still. I often made my way to the calming Japanese Garden and took a lap or two. Sometimes I would bring my phone and catch up with people as I walked through the Rose Garden or down to the duck pond.
As I wind past the Japanese Gardens, I remember that the park was the site of a zoo which closed in the 1930s, a casualty of the Great Depression. The ruins of the animal enclosures still dot the landscape in certain areas. If I didn’t know what I was looking for, I’d think that they were just stones haphazardly stacked.
We hadn’t even started dating yet when my out of town boyfriend first came to visit me. Almost as soon as he got off the plane, I told him that I wanted to take him to Manito Park. He still teases me about this, about my dogged determination to bring a country boy to a manicured park in the middle of the city. But I’ve lived my life in Manito. It has been there for heartbreak and heart-to-hearts. I spent time there with my first crush as an 8-year-old (naturally he was completely unaware of my existence). I have pushed my friends’ kids on the swings, picnicked in the grass, and played kickball. It was only fitting that it be the backdrop for this new, fragile chapter too. Now, as I walk through the field next to Upper Manito and take a seat on the swing, I hear whispers of that visit joining the rest of the cacophony.