words: Marla Cantrell
Images: courtesy Renee Carman and Jean Ann Sadler
A little more than a year and a half ago, Renee Carman was in a funk. Usually a whirlwind of charisma going a mile a minute, she found herself confined to her bedroom for seventy-two hours to make sure a skin graft wasn’t compromised. The graft was necessary after knee surgery for an old sports injury.
After her exile, Renee leaned on a cane as she hobbled across the floors of her house in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She’d always been the kind of person who gained momentum during the day, her energy showing in every new idea, and now she was having to slow down so that she could recover. Friends (and she has a chorus of them) brought food that filled her freezer. They sent cards and gifts, snappy messages, happy words to cheer her up.
It all helped, but that dang knee was still getting her down. And that’s where Jean Ann Sadler comes in, at the time one of Renee’s newer friends. Jean Ann had an idea she was itching to share with Renee. And to do it, she wanted to get Renee out of her house.
So she picked her up one late morning and drove her to River City Deli. Renee remembers pulling on her stretchiest yoga pants. She remembers the halting way she made her trek to one of the closest tables. Renee looked around, seeing people she knew (there are legions of people she knows), and running her fingers through her tangled blonde hair.
When she looked across the table, Jean Ann was beaming. “I have an idea,” she said. “And I think you’ll love it.”
Renee is a sucker for new ideas, and she adores the beginning of things when everything is possible. She listened as Jean Ann laid out her plan. Dismissing Renee’s feeble condition, she talked about how the two of them would design big wooden signs, build them, and then rent them to customers who wanted to surprise someone for their birthday, graduation, or even to ask a date to prom. They’d need a lot of brightly painted numbers, for example, so that someone turning sixteen would have a one and a six in their front yard for the world to see.
No matter that Renee and Jean Ann had never handled saws or sanders. That they’d never designed signs. Or that they hadn’t thought how difficult it might be to secure an eight-foot wooden sign in frozen ground, sometimes in the dark of night.
That day, all that seemed to matter was that Jean Ann had an idea, she needed Renee’s help to make it happen, and it sounded like a whole lot of fun.
The two laugh at their naivete. They laugh at their husbands’ laughter when they tried to picture their wives lugging these signs out of their SUVs and onto lawns across Fort Smith and beyond. But soon the laughter stopped. Their husbands knew enough about these two to know that they’d do whatever they set their minds to. So, they signed up not only to teach them the basics of power tools, but to be part of their delivery service.
For weeks the two texted each other, trying to come up with the perfect name for the company. They settled on Yard Yap, surmising that what they were doing was getting people’s yards to talk, to say Happy Birthday, or There’s a new baby in the house. They started a Facebook page, and they waited.
And just like that, they had an order for a little boy’s seventh birthday. He liked racecars, and they designed a sign shaped like one, and he was thrilled.
No one around had seen anything quite like what Jean Ann and Renee were doing. They were elves, showing up, often under moonlight, erecting a surprise sign, and whisking away undetected. But then one night, Renee (fully recovered) and her husband ended up at the wrong house. They worked stealthily, being as quiet as they could. The money for the sign rental was supposed to be under a flower pot on the porch, but when Renee went to fetch it, it wasn’t there.
Shouting was coming from the house. The sign-putting had caused a fright, both for these unsuspecting homeowners and Renee and her husband.
Renee laughs at the memory. “I can’t read a map,” she confesses, “and my navigation system had taken us to the wrong street. We got it all worked out, but we don’t put up signs at night anymore.”
Since then, Jean Ann and Renee estimate they’ve installed 500 signs all across the area. They’ve designed dragons and cupcakes, basketballs and Razorbacks. They’ve gotten super friendly with Jerry the Paint Wizard, at Yeager’s Hardware. They’ve had repeat customers, and kids who’ve requested the signs for their birthdays.
Often, you’ll find the two women covered in sawdust, spackled with paint, wondering when the last time it was they had a manicure. And then they’ll laugh, the sound like singing bells in the mote-filled light of the garage. What they’ve found is worth so much more than painted fingernails.
“We make people happy,” Jean Ann says.
Renee is beaming at Jean Ann. “When we started out, we had no idea what would happen.”
Jean Ann says, “We thought if we put up a few signs a month, we’d be happy. But I can’t tell you how many times we scrambled because we didn’t have enough of a certain number to fill all our orders. Renee got up super early one morning to make a ‘one’ just so we could get a last-minute order done.”
Renee is a soft touch, and has trouble saying no to anyone who wants to surprise someone with a Yard Yap sign. She shrugs her shoulders. She says, “What can I say? I like to see people smile.”
Today, they do at least thirty signs a month, all across the region. If you order a sign that includes the person’s name, the recipient gets to keep that part of the set-up. Kids often hang the sign in their bedroom as a reminder.
The signs are a three-day rental, which gives everyone a chance to snap photos and show their friends. They’ve done signs for all ages, including a dear woman in her upper nineties, who loved all the attention she got.
As for Jean Ann and Renee, they feel like their lives are conduits for joy, something that sustains them even as they lug the heavy signs in and out of their SUVs.
They’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half, not the least of which is how much they care about each other. Renee stands in boots with heels and a perfect knee next to Jean Ann who is radiant in a bright pink top, the light catching her dark hair.
At times, you’re likely to find Renee on the tennis court, living life big. But she never forgets the day Jean Ann came to get her out of the house, when the surgery and the recovery that followed bothered her more than she ever imagined it would.
Looking back, she sees that there was already a plan in place that would take her on her next adventure with a friend she loves. The two of them would make yards talk. What could ever be better than that?
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