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.

Dad and Daniel at the Museum of Natural History. This picture is from around 1995.
Dad and Daniel at the Museum of Natural History. This picture is from around 1995.

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.

My father and guess who some 50+ years ago.
My father and guess who some 50+ years ago.

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.

11 Comments on “A Gardener Grew in Brooklyn

  1. Reblogged this on gardeninacity and commented:

    I originally posted this in June, 2012. This year Father’s Day and Judy’s birthday coincide, and the following day is our anniversary. With all this going on, it seemed like a good time to repost these thoughts on my father, gardening, and fatherhood.

  2. This is such a lovely post, my blogger-friend. Thank you for sharing this interesting memoir with us. Happy Fathers Day to you. May all fathers — intentionally or not – be able to hand down a good legacy for their children.

  3. You can post this whenever you want because it is a lovely recount of growing up with a male figure who took his responsibility as a father seriously. And, now we all know gardening runs in the genes. 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend full of celebrations.

  4. Just beautiful. Thank you so much for posting this, and have a wonderful Father’s Day. My dad passed away in the mid 1990s. Although neither of my parents had any interest in plants or gardening, I too grew up in one of the postwar developments on LI. My dad bought our 2-bedroom cape cod on 1/8 acre for $9000, via a full GI mortgage, in 1950 and my parents lived there all their lives.

  5. How lovely. As I putter around the flower beds and yard this morning, I thank my Dad, who I learned the ‘ways of the garden’ and Grandad, who taught him. He was organic before the concept was invented – never a can of weed killer or fertilizer – just hand pickin’ and grass clippins. We had so many tomatoes and green beans every summer he would give grocery bags full (not little TJ handle bags) to neighbor and friends. Have a great week.

  6. This is wonderful, Jason. 🙂 Even though your kids aren’t gardeners, they no doubt have an appreciation of gardening and its ecological implications, and that’s just as important.

  7. This is a nice tribute to your father, Jason. I, too, learned to love nature and gardening from my dad. However, it took finally having my own home to get back into it on my own terms. There may be hope for your sons yet! 😉

  8. This: “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.”

    So evocative and well-written – this was precisely my dad’s story too! But he blossomed into an even more deliriously happy gardener through his later years, planting many ornamental, shade and fruit trees, vegetables and perennials in the bare suburban yard of the new house he had built in his late 70’s, after moving south from our childhood home in the Midwest after my mother died.
    He planted two beautiful walnut trees which by his death at 100 had grown spectacularly tall, and which the new owners of his house then immediately had removed….aarrrgh.
    He was the Raspberry King, had borders of irises, lilies, dianthus, stokesia, etc., and he reveled in the crepe myrtles, gardenias, and camellias of his new region. He maintained his own garden and his acute curiosity about his garden almost up to the very end. He was still mowing his own lawn and weeding and planting trees at age 98.
    And he, too, though a “yeller” and very dictatorial in our young days, ended up a much more mellow person, and beloved for his volunteer work……maybe the trick is to live long enough!

    All three of his adult children are avid gardeners – the grandchildren are either casually interested or are now starting to become a little crazed on their own.
    What a heritage. I am so grateful for mine and I congratulate you on yours!

    • It does sound like our families are similar, though your dad went much farther than mine in developing his garden. Also, my dad stayed in the same house his whole life.

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