A Gardener Grew in Brooklyn
I had a very nice Father’s Day. In the morning, Judy and I went to the Skokie Farmer’s Market for the first time this year. When we returned, we found our oldest son Daniel at our doorstep, bearing bagels. We sat on the porch through the late morning and into the afternoon, drinking coffee and eating bagels, talking about things serious and silly. During that time, our younger son David called from his apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, and we had an excellent talk.
I count myself very lucky to have such good kids. Thinking about them on this day makes me think about my own father. Our relationship did not always go smoothly, but of course he influenced what I became as a person through ways intentional and not. He was the one who started me on the path to becoming a gardener.
My dad was a Brooklyn boy who moved to the suburbs, a Navy veteran who bought a nice house in one of the big developments built on Long Island after World War II. He thought it was Paradise. I remember him telling me that it had the beauty of the country and the convenience of the city.
My perspective was very different. To me, our home had neither the open space and solitude offered by the countryside, nor the vitality and easy access to interesting goings on that could be found in the city.
We both had an interest in plants, however. My dad grew up in an apartment building with parents who associated things of the soil with their origins in the Old Country, a time for which they had not the slightest bit of nostalgia. As long as they could buy food at the grocery and flowers at the florists, they were happy to leave it at that. My father sought to escape their world of the family business, the synagogue, and the claustrophobia of an ethnic urban neighborhood.
For my dad, having a lawn to mow and flower beds to fill with blooms represented a move to a different and better way of life, as well as a financial achievement. Unlike some of the neighbors, he wanted us to take care of the yard ourselves. Much as he took pleasure in it, though, I think he found gardening to be something essentially exotic.
He loved gardening gadgets. His favorite was the “tree feeder”, a tube you would stick in the ground at the base of a tree, then connect to the hose so that it could deliver liquid fertilizer directly to the tree’s roots (an item of extremely dubious value). He liked roses and bedding annuals, which we would buy on outings to Hicks’, the big nursery in the area. He had faith in the benefits of science, and so did not hesitate to use chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides.
My brother and I developed our own interest in gardening. He put a flower bed into the backyard, and I started a vegetable garden. We laughed at our father’s tastes and methods as misguided at best. We both went on to become avid gardeners as adults, though. I find it hard to believe that this would have occurred if we had not absorbed some of our father’s pleasure in bringing color and life out of the soil.
Dad was hard working to a fault, and his devotion to family was absolute, not unlike many from his generation. While he could be distant and had a short temper, he mellowed with age. With his grandchildren he was able to be much more playful than he was with his own kids. He worked until close to the end of his life, and volunteered at the public library and a local clinic, where he was much loved.
My boys have little interest in gardening, though they do have many interests and an outlook on the world that are very similar to those held by their mother and me. Perhaps gardening will come later. Either way, I don’t really mind. Though I have not been a perfect father, they still wanted to spend time with me today. That’s what counts.