A Perspective From The Garden

Dear Friends,

My family and I moved into what everyone told us would be our ‘starter home’ in the spring of 1984.  The house had been built on spec by a neighborhood carpenter in 1925.  Erected decades before the Town of North Hempstead’s present building code, the house is non-conforming in many ways.  One example: Though my home is modest, it sits on a plot of land that is too small to hold it.  Frankly, this was one of the quirky features that attracted me to the house.  You see, I grew up in a rowhouse in South Philadelphia with a concrete yard.  As kids, we used a common alley as our playground.  Commuting by bus and by subway to my inner-city university, I knew nothing of a grassy quad or of ivy-covered dorms.  When I came to New York to work at RSNS, I moved into a fifth-floor apartment in Forest Hill.  I was ill-equipped to deal with a lawn, so I was relieved to have only a small patch of green to deal with. Better still, our backyard was divided in half with a garden to the left of the walkway.  Even less to mow!

Given the season and the careful tending by the land-proud former owners, the garden was in full bloom when we moved into the house. It yielded vegetables all summer long – peppers, tomatoes, green beans, peas, squash, and eggplant along with all sorts of herbs.  Every morning our daughter, Sara, would pick what she wanted for me to put into an omelet or a salad.  My having grown up thinking that vegetables came in cans, I felt pleased to give her a close-to-the-earth experience.

You can imagine my disappointment the following spring when the garden yielded nothing.  I called Sam Blumenthal, who was president of the congregation at the time, and a legendary gardener.  “There’s something wrong with the garden,” I announced.  What could be wrong with your garden?” he asked.  “It’s broken.  Nothing is coming up from the ground like last year.  Sara is devastated.”  “Did you plant anything?”  “What do you mean ‘plant’?  “I’ll be over soon.”

Sam appeared two hours later with plants, gardening tools and several bags of soil, and a pail of mulch.  Sam showed me how far apart to plant the seedlings, how deep to dig the holes, and taught me which plants would need the most sun.  He left me instructions for watering, assuring me that the herbs – save the basil – would pretty much take care of themselves so long as I kept the ivy from invading their bed.

That was more than forty years ago.  Yes, I am still most happily in my ‘starter home.’  The house, which a few years ago was designated as part of Roslyn Heights Historic District, will celebrate its centenary next year.  I feel privileged to have lived within its walls and raised my children here.  I have gotten to know the insides of this house very well, yet the outside remains very much a mystery to me.  While I have carefully curated the interior of the house to reflect my interests and my tastes, I have left the outside to the Holy Blessed One whose incarnation is a gardener named Ramon who visits with his crew every week to mow the lawn (such as it is) and trim the hedges.

This has become a metaphor for what is in my power to control, and what I cannot control in these challenging, troubling, contentious times.  I have learned that though I can continue to teach and write and rally and vote for how I think the world should be, I am limited in effecting the workings of nations including my own.  It doesn’t mean that I can’t curate a life that is of benefit to my family and to the communities in which I have chosen to live.  Nor do I feel that I am alone in my struggles.  I get great comfort from my children and their partners and, most especially, from my grandchildren, and from our embracing, ever-questioning, and intellectually expansive community that is our synagogue.

This year the garden will not yield vegetables.  I didn’t get around to planting any.  There will be flowers in my planters, however, thanks to my wonderful neighbor, and I have parsley, rosemary, and basil to put into the ground.  The sage came back with a vengeance as did the thyme, no thanks to me, and then there’s the ever-diligent mint.  (Thank You, God.). I will rejoice in what Nature has given me, and work for the rest as best I can.

I wish you a good summer filled with conversations and books and music and laughter and cicadas and good food and drink, and, perhaps, a measure of peace.  Warmly,