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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/15/09

Cultivating Memories While Gardening

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I have planted flowers for years. When I garden, I feel plugged in to nature and the seasons. It also connects me with some of my favorite people. Every spring, my mother and I would visit the local nursery.  I cherished those outings.

Browsing was bliss, our heads together as we seriously debated the pros and cons of various options.  My parents had left suburbia the minute I, the youngest, graduated from high school. They were happy to be back in the city, and my father finally had a more manageable commute.  But my mother always missed her flowers, especially the lilacs.  My interest allowed her to garden vicariously through me. And I could count on her complete approval of my enthusiastic if amateurish efforts.

Time has passed and my mother no longer accompanies me on this annual trip.  But the memory of her guidance and participation is strong and adds an incalculable preciousness to my experience.

 For the first time this year, I am attempting to grow vegetables as well as flowers. This is a big deal.  Although I love greenery and my home is full of plants, gardening does not come naturally to me. I was not blessed with a green thumb.

It all started with a conversation with my colleague and long-distance friend, Michael Collins. Once I tried to reach him, and it turned out that he was out working in his vegetable garden. As he described his activities, something resonated deep within me. I suddenly craved this for myself.  

I immediately pumped Michael for more details.  Uncharacteristically, he clammed up. Instead, he suggested that I open a conversation about gardening with anyone and everyone I encountered. He promised that experts would start coming out of the woodwork. His advice was right on the mark.

I recalled that Tony, my hairdresser, is an avid gardener. He even brought heirloom tomato seeds with him when he came here from Italy.  He has a greenhouse a well as a huge suburban plot. I happened to have an appointment a few days later and broached the subject with him. By the time I emerged an hour later, the haircut was almost incidental. I clutched a detailed diagram for my future vegetable plot, complete with specifics on what to buy - Roma, Better Boy, and Early Girl - as well as tips, like not planting cukes and zukes near one another, and keeping mint penned in to inhibit its expansionist tendencies. A new world was opening up before me.

Next stop - Ace Hardware in downtown Skokie. I spent more than an hour there, discussing composting with one of their knowledgeable employees. He shared his expertise unstintingly;  I felt neither rushed nor self-conscious about being such a novice. He was as excited about my gardening as I was. Two different people interrupted to put in their two cents’ worth. One told me how great used coffee grounds are for composting. Starbucks apparently gives them away, but you have to show up early.  (No problem there. My husband Rafi visits Starbucks before 7:00 every morning. A few days later, it was Mother’s Day. Rafi presented me with a lovely card with a gardening theme and a huge sack of grounds - a most unique and welcome gift.)

I have learned that having the designated kitchen receptacle in full view prevents us from throwing potential compost automatically in the garbage.  Rafi reminded me that my graduate school professor, Bernie Reisman, was already heavily into recycling all those years ago. He consistently used both sides of all paper and envelopes, on campus as well as at home.  For this, he was considered a bit of an oddball at the time. 

The big compost heap in the back yard enriched his flowers and vegetables. Bernie would sit at the kitchen table after dinner, cutting leftovers into small scraps that would break down more quickly.  I watched him at this task many a time. That’s because Bernie was much more to me than just a professor.  The Reismans virtually adopted Rafi, me, and Inte, our dog. The three of us became a part of the Reisman family. I have  many fond memories of hanging out over there, listening to Bernie’s many stories about growing up in New York City, his band of friends, and their exploits.  

When my daughter Ariella graduated from Brandeis, my entire family stayed at Bernie’s.  When Michael celebrated his Bar Mitzvah almost seven years ago, Bernie and Elaine traveled from Boston for the event.  It was a particularly poignant reunion. Bernie had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and this was one of his last plane trips.

I just got back from Boston and was able to visit with  Elaine.  We spent a few wonderful hours together. Bernie wouldn’t know me now; he’s in a special Alzheimer’s facility.  But when I cut up kitchen scraps, garden, and recycle, I feel as if his values flow through me.  I’m also working on a series on Alzheimer’s with Elaine. We look forward to sharing their story in a way that others will find helpful.

I may not be able to do much about what’s going on out there in this messed-up world of ours, but there is something so satisfying about conserving, composting, and trying to make a small dent on our dependence on others to supply all of our daily needs.This enthusiasm is definitely contagious;  friends have begun collecting their vegetable scraps, peels, and egg shells for me. I am already hatching grander plans for next year:  more herbs, maybe some greens, and, probably, a fence to keep the rabbits out. While, in theory, I support the principle of co-existence, there is a cost to such high-mindedness: it’s barely June, but the peppers have been nibbled on and the beets have already vanished.

I have always loved working in the garden, on my knees, the dirt caking under my fingernails, and the sun warming my back through my shirt.  As I putter around, I feel  intensely connected with both my mother and Bernie. In those moments, we are all magically younger and vital. What could be better than that? Any veggies will be icing on the cake.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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