My first garden was a place no grown-up ever knew about, even though it was in the backyard of a quarter-acre suburban plot. Behind our house in Farmingdale, on Long Island, stood a rough hedge of lilac and forsythia that had been planted to hide the neighbor’s slat wood fence. My garden, which I shared with my sister and our friends, consisted of the strip of unplanted ground between the hedge and the fence. I say that no grown-up knew about it because, in an adult’s picture of this landscape, the hedge runs flush against the fence. To a four-year-old, though, the space made by the vaulting branches of a forsythia is as grand as the inside of a cathedral, and there is room enough for a world between a lilac and a wall. Whenever I needed to be out of range of adult radar, I’d crawl beneath the forsythia’s arches, squeeze between two lilac bushes, and find myself safe and alone in my own green room.
I think of this place today as a garden not only because it offered an enclosed and privileged space out-of-doors but also because it was here that I first actually grew something. Most of the pictures I can retrieve from that time are sketchy and brittle, but this one unspools like a strip of celluloid. It must be September. I am by myself behind the hedge, maybe hiding from my sister or just poking around, when I catch sight of a stippled green football sitting in a tangle of vines and broad leaves. It’s a watermelon. The feeling is of finding treasure–a right-angled change of fortune, an unexpected boon. Then I make the big connection between this melon and a seed I planted, or at least spit out and buried, months before: I made this happen. For a moment I’m torn between leaving the melon to ripen and the surging desire to publicize my achievement: Mom has got to see this. So I break the cord attaching the melon to the vine, cradle it in my arms and run for the house, screaming my head off the whole way. The watermelon weighs a ton, though, and just as I hit the back steps I lose my balance. The melon squirts from my arms and smashes in a pink explosion on the cement.
Watermelon perfume fills the air and then the memory stalls. I can’t remember but I must have cried–to see so fine a triumph snatched away, to feel Humpty-Dumpty suddenly crash onto my four-year-old conscience. Memories of one kind or another play around the edges of every garden, giving them much of their resonance and savor. I’ve spent thousands of hours in the garden since that afternoon, and there is perhaps some sense in which all this time has been spent trying to recover that watermelon and the flush of pride that attended its discovery.
I can’t recall whether I tried to salvage any part of the melon to show my father when he got home from work, but I can assume he would not have been greatly impressed. My father was not much for gardening, and the postage-stamp yard of our ranch house showed it. The lawn was patchy and always in need of a mowing, the hedges were unclipped and scraggly, and in summer hordes of Japanese beetles dined on our rosebushes without challenge. My father was a Bronx boy who had been swept to the suburbs in the postwar migration. Buying a house with a yard on Long Island was simply what you did then, part of how you said who you were when you were a lawyer or a dentist (he was a lawyer) just starting out in the fifties. Certainly it was no great love of fresh air that drove him from the city. I have a few memories of my father standing with his Salem and a highball glass on the concrete patio behind the house, but, with a single exception I will come to, not one of him out in the yard mowing the lawn or pulling weeds or otherwise acting the part of a suburban dad.
I remember him as strictly an indoor dad, moving around the house in his year-round uniform of button-down shirt, black socks and tie shoes, and boxer shorts. Maybe it was the fact that he hated to wear pants that kept him indoors, or perhaps the boxers were a way to avoid having to go outside. Either way, my mother was left with the choice of her husband doing the yard work in his underwear, or not doing it at all, which in the suburbs is not much of a choice. So while the boxers kept Dad pinned to the kitchen table, the yard steadily deteriorated to the point where it became something of a neighborhood and family scandal.
My mother’s father lived a few miles away in Babylon, in a big house with beautiful, manicured gardens, and the condition of our yard could be counted on to make him crazy–something it may well have been calculated to do. My grandfather was a somewhat overbearing patriarch whom my father could not stand. Grandpa, who would live to be ninety-six, had come to Long Island from Russia shortly before the First World War. Starting out with nothing, selling vegetables from a horse wagon, he eventually built a fortune, first in the produce business and later in real estate. In choosing my father, my mother had married a notch or two beneath her station, and Grandpa made it his business to minimize his eldest daughter’s sacrifice–or, looked at from another angle, to highlight my father’s shortcomings. This meant giving my father large quantities of unsolicited career advice, unsolicited business opportunities (invariably bum deals, according to my father), and unsolicited landscape services.
In the same way some people send flowers, Grandpa sent whole gardens. These usually arrived unexpectedly, by truck caravan. Two or three flatbeds appeared at the curb and a crew of Italian laborers fanned out across the property to execute whatever new plan Grandpa had dreamed up. One time he sent a rose garden that ran the length of our property, from curb to back fence. But it wasn’t enough to send the rosebushes: Grandpa held my father’s very soil in low esteem; no plant of his could be expected to grow in it. So he had his men dig a fifty-foot trench three feet wide and a foot deep, remove the soil by hand and then replace it with soil trucked in from his own garden. This way the roses (which also came from Grandpa’s garden) would suffer no undue stress and my father’s poor, neglected soil would be at least partly redeemed. Sometimes it seemed as if my grandfather was bent on replacing every bit of earth around our house, a square foot at a time.
Now any good gardener cares as much about soil as plants, but my grandfather’s obsession with this particular patch of earth probably went deeper than that. No doubt my father, who was the first in his family to own his own house, viewed his father-in-law’s desire to replace our soil with his own as a challenge to the very ground on which his independence stood. And maybe there was something to this: Grandpa had given my parents the money for the down payment ($4,000; the house had cost $11,000), and, like most of his gifts, this one was not unencumbered. The unsolicited landscaping services, like Grandpa’s habit of occasionally pounding on the house’s walls as if to check on its upkeep, suggest that his feelings about our house were more than a little proprietary. It was as a landlord that Grandpa felt most comfortable in the world, and as long as my father declined to think of himself as a tenant, they were bound not to get along.
But probably his concern for our soil was also an extension of his genuine and deeply felt love of land. I don’t mean love of the land, in the nature-lover’s sense. The land is abstract and in some final sense unpossessable by any individual. Grandpa loved land as a reliable if somewhat mystical source of private wealth. No matter what happened in the world, no matter what folly the government perpetrated, land could be counted on to hold and multiply its value. At the worst a plot could yield a marketable crop and, at least on Long Island for most of this century, it could almost certainly be resold for a profit. “They can print more money,” he liked to say, “and they can print new stocks and bonds, but they can’t print more land.”
In his mind, the Old World peasant and the real estate developer existed side by side; he was both men and perceived no contradiction. Each looked at a piece of land and saw potential wealth: it made no difference that one saw a field of potatoes and the other a housing development. Grandpa could be perfectly happy spending his mornings tenderly cultivating the land and his afternoons despoiling it. Thoreau, planting his bean field, said he aimed to make the earth ‘speak beans.” Some days my grandfather made the earth speak vegetables; other days it was shopping centers.
Grandpa started out in the teens wholesaling produce in Suffolk County, which was mostly farmland then. He would buy fruits and vegetables from the farmers and sell them to restaurants and, later, to the military bases that sprang up on Long Island during the war. He managed to make money straight through the Depression, and used his savings to buy farmland at Depression prices. When after the Second World War the suburbs started to boom, he saw his opportunity. Suffolk County was generally considered too far from the city for commuters, but Grandpa was confident that sooner or later the suburban tide would reach his shore. His faith in the area was so emphatic that (according to his obituary in Newsday) he was known in business circles as Mr. Suffolk.
Grandpa worked the leading edge of the suburban advance, speculating in the land that suburbanization was steadily translating from farm into tract house and shopping center. He grasped the powerful impulses that drove New Yorkers farther and farther out east because he shared them. There was the fear and contempt for city ways–the usual gloss on the suburban outlook–but there was also a nobler motive: to build a middle-class utopia, impelled by a Jeffersonian hunger for independence and a drive to create an ideal world for one’s children. The suburbs, where you could keep one foot on the land and the other in the city, was without a doubt the best way to live, and Grandpa possessed an almost evangelical faith that we would all live this way eventually. Every time he bought a hundred acres of North Fork potato field, he knew it was only a matter of time before its utopian destiny would be fulfilled. Grandpa had nothing against potatoes, but who could deny that the ultimate Long Island crop was a suburban development? The fact that every home in that development could have a patch of potatoes in the backyard was proof that progress had no cost.
His own suburban utopia was a sprawling ranch house on five acres of waterfront in Babylon, on the south shore. My grandfather had enough money to live nearly anywhere, and for a time the family lived in a very grand mansion in Westbury. But he preferred to live in one of Long Island’s new developments, and after his children were grown he and my grandmother moved into one where the fancy homes on their big plots nevertheless hewed to the dictates of middle-class suburban taste. The houses were set well back from the road and their massive expanses of unhedged front lawn ran together to create the impression of a single parklike landscape. Here in front of each house was at least an acre of land on which no one but the hired gardener ever stepped, an extravagance of unused acreage that must have rubbed against Grandpa’s grain. But front yards in the suburbs are supposed to contribute to a kind of visual commons, and to honor this convention, Grandpa was willing to deny himself the satisfaction of fully exploiting an entire acre of prime real estate.
At least until I was a teenager, visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s were always sweet occasions. The anticipation would start to build as we turned onto Peninsula Drive and began the long, slow ride through that Great Common Lawn, a perfection of green relieved only by evergreen punctuation marks and the fine curves of driveways drawn in jet-black asphalt. Eager as we were to get there, we always made Mom slow down (Dad hardly ever made the trip) in the hope of spotting the one celebrity who lived on my grandparents’ road: Bob Keeshan, known to every child of that time as Captain Kangaroo. One time we did see the Captain, dressed in his civilian clothes, digging in his garden.
There is something about a lush, fresh-cut lawn that compels children to break into a sprint, and after the long ride we couldn’t wait to spill out of the station wagon and fan out across the backyard. The grass always seemed to have a fresh crew cut, and it was so springy and uniform that you wanted to run your hand across it and bring your face close. My sisters could spend the whole afternoon practicing their cartwheels on it, but sooner or later Grandma would lure them indoors, into what was emphatically her realm. Except for the garage and a small den with a TV, where Grandpa passed rainy days stretched out on the sofa, the house brimmed with grandmotherness: glass cases full of tiny ceramic figurines, billowy pink chiffon curtains, dressing tables with crystal atomizers and silver hairbrushes, lacquered boxes stuffed with earrings, ornately framed portraits of my mother and aunt. I remember it as a very queenly place, a suburban Versailles, and it absorbed my sisters for hours at a time.
Grandpa’s realm was outside, where he and his gardener, Andy, had made what I judged a paradise. Beginning at the driveway, the lawn described a broad, curving avenue that wound around the back of the house. On one side of it was the flagstone patio and rock garden, and on the other a wilder area planted with shrubs and small trees; this enclosed the backyard, screening it from the bay. A stepping-stone path conducted you through this area, passing beneath a small rose arbor and issuing with an unfailingly pleasing surprise onto the bright white beach. Plunked in the middle of the lawn was a gazebo, a silly confection of a building that was hardly ever used. Arrayed around it in a neat crescent was a collection of the latest roses: enormous blooms on spindly stems with names like Chrysler and Eisenhower and Peace. In June they looked like members of a small orchestra, performing for visitors in the gazebo.
The area between the lawn and the beach was twenty or thirty feet deep, thickly planted, and it formed a kind of wilderness we could explore out of sight of the adults on the patio. Here were mature rhododendrons and fruit trees, including a famous peach that Grandpa was said to have planted from seed. It was an impressive tree, too, weighed down in late summer with bushels of fruit. The tree was a dwarf, so we could reach the downy yellow globes ourselves. Hoping to repeat Grandpa’s achievement, we carefully buried the pit of every peach we ate. (Probably it was his example that inspired my experiment with watermelon seeds.) But ripe fruit was only one of the surprises of Grandpa’s wild garden. There was another we always looked for, only sometimes found. Creeping among the rhododendrons and dwarf trees, we would on lucky days come upon a small, shaded glade where, on a low mound, a concrete statue stood. It was a boy with his hand on his penis, peeing. This scandalous little scene never failed to set off peals of laughter when we were in a group; alone, the feelings were more complicated. In one way or another Eros operates in every garden; here was where he held sway in Grandpa’s.
Back out in daylight, you could continue along the avenue of lawn until you came to an area of formal hedges clipped as tall as a ten-year-old, and forming an alley perhaps ten feet wide and forty feet long. At one end was a regulation-size shuffleboard court paved in sleek, painted concrete (it felt cool to bare feet all summer), and, at the other, a pair of horseshoe pins. Some visits these games held my interest for a while, but usually I made straight for the break in the hedge that gave onto what was unquestionably my favorite and my grandfather’s proudest part of the garden–indeed, the only part of the property I ever heard anybody call a garden: his vegetable garden.
Vegetables had given Grandpa his earliest success, and the older he got, the more devoted to them he became. Eventually care of the ornamental gardens fell to Andy, and Grandpa spent the better part of his days among the vegetables, each spring adding to the garden and subtracting from the lawn. It’s quite possible that, had Grandpa lived another twenty years, his suburban spread would have reverted entirely to farm. As it was, Grandpa had at least a half-acre planted in vegetables–virtually a truck farm, and a totally unreasonable garden for an elderly couple. I have a photograph of him from the seventies, standing proudly among his vegetables in his double-knits, and I can count more than twenty-five tomato plants and at least a dozen zucchini plants. You can’t see the corn–row upon row of sweet corn–or the string beans, cucumbers, cantaloupes, peppers, and onions, but there had to be enough here to supply a farm stand.
The garden was bordered by a curving brick kneewall that ran right along the water, a location that ensured a long growing season since the bay held heat well into the fall, forestalling frost. Grandpa could afford to be extravagant with space, and no two plants in his garden ever touched one another. I don’t think a more meticulous vegetable garden ever existed; my grandfather hoed it every morning, and no weed dared raise its head above that black, loamy floor. Grandpa brought the same precision to the planting of string beans and tomatoes that Le n’tre brought to the planting of chestnut trees in the Tuileries. The rows, which followed the curves of the garden wall, might as well have been laid out by a surveyor, and the space between each plant was uniform and exact. Taken as a whole, the garden looked like nothing so much as a scale model for one of the latest suburban developments: the rows were roads, and each freestanding vegetable plant was a single-family house. Here in the garden one of the unacknowledged contradictions of Grandpa’s life was symbolically resolved: the farmer and the developer became one.
But what could have possessed my grandfather to plant such a big vegetable garden? Even cooking and canning and pickling at her furious clip, there was no way my grandmother could keep up with his garden’s vast daily yield. Eventually she cracked and went on strike: she refused to process any more of his harvest, and true to her word, never again pickled a cucumber or canned a tomato. But even then he would not be deterred, and the garden continued to expand.
I suspect that this crisis of overproduction suited Grandpa just fine. He was foremost a capitalist and, to borrow a pair of terms from Marx, was ultimately less interested in the use-value of his produce than in its exchange-value. I don’t mean to suggest that he took no immediate pleasure in his vegetables; his tomatoes, especially, pleased him enormously. He liked to slice his beefsteaks into thick pink slabs and go at them with a knife and fork. Watching him dine on one, you understood immediately how a tomato could come to be named for a cut of meat. ‘sweetasugar,” he would announce between bites, his accent mushing the three words together into one incantatory sound. Of course he would say the same thing about his Bermuda onions, his corn, even his bell peppers. Grandpa’s vocabulary of English superlatives was limited, and ‘sweetasugar” was the highest compliment you could pay a vegetable.
Eating beefsteaks was one pleasure, but calculating their market value and giving them away was even better. Having spent many years in the produce business, Grandpa had set aside a place in his mind where he maintained the current retail price of every vegetable in the supermarket; even in his nineties he would drop by the Waldbaum’s produce section from time to time to update his mental price list. Harvesting alongside him, I can remember Grandpa holding a tomato aloft and, instead of exclaiming over its size or perfect color, he’d quote its market price: Thirty-nine cents a pound! (Whatever the amount, it was always an outrage.) Probably when he gazed out over his garden he could see in his mind’s eye those little white placards stapled to tongue depressors listing the going per-pound price of every crop. And given the speed with which he could tally a column of figures in his head, I am sure he could mentally translate the entire garden into U.S. currency in less time than it took me to stake a tomato plant. To work in his garden was to commune with nature without ever leaving the marketplace.
By growing much more produce than he and Grandma could ever hope to consume, Grandpa transformed his vegetables into commodities. And to make sure of this elevated status, he planted exclusively those varieties sold by the supermarket chains: beefsteaks, iceberg lettuce, Blue Lake string beans, Marketmore cukes. Never mind that these were usually varieties distinguished less for their flavor than their fitness for transcontinental shipment; he preferred a (theoretically) marketable crop to a tasty one. Of course selling the vegetables wasn’t a realistic option; he appreciated that an eighty-five-year-old real estate magnate couldn’t very well open a farm stand, as much as he might have liked to. Still, he needed distribution channels, so he worked hard at giving the stuff away. All summer, before he got dressed for work (he never retired), Grandpa harvested the garden and loaded the trunk and backseat of his Lincoln with bushel baskets of produce. As he went on his rounds–visiting tenants, haggling with bankers and brokers, buying low and selling high–he’d give away baskets of vegetables. Now my grandfather never gave away anything that didn’t have at least some slender string attached to it, and no doubt he believed that his sweet-as-sugar beefsteaks put these businessmen in his debt, gave him some slight edge. And probably this was so. At the least, the traveling produce show put the suits off their guard, making Grandpa seem more like some benign Old World bumpkin than the shark he really was.
It took a long time before I understood the satisfactions of giving away vegetables, but the pleasures of harvesting them I acquired immediately. A good visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s was one on a day he hadn’t already harvested. On these occasions I could barely wait for Grandpa to hand me a basket and dispatch me to the garden to start the picking. Alone was best–when Grandpa came along, he would invariably browbeat me about some fault in my technique, so I made sure to get out there before he finished small-talking with Mom. Ripe vegetables were magic to me. Unharvested, the garden bristled with possibility. I would quicken at the sight of a ripe tomato, sounding its redness from deep amidst the undifferentiated green. To lift a bean plant’s hood of heart-shaped leaves and discover a clutch of long slender pods hanging underneath could make me catch my breath. Cradling the globe of a cantaloupe warmed in the sun, or pulling orange spears straight from his sandy soil–these were the keenest of pleasures, and even today in the garden they’re accessible to me, dulled only slightly by familiarity.
At the time this pleasure had nothing to do with eating. I didn’t like vegetables any better than most kids do (tomatoes I considered disgusting, acceptable only in the form of ketchup), yet there it was: the vegetable sublime. Probably I had absorbed my grandfather’s reverence for produce, the sense that this was precious stuff and here it was, growing, for all purposes, on trees. I may have had no use for tomatoes and cucumbers, but the fact that adults did conferred value on them in my eyes. The vegetable garden in summer made an enchanted landscape, mined with hidden surprises, dabs of unexpected color and unlikely forms that my grandfather had taught me to regard as treasures. My favorite board game as a child was Candyland, in which throws of the dice advanced your man through a stupendous landscape of lollipop trees, milk-chocolate swamps, shrubs made of gumdrops. Candyland posited a version of nature that answered to a child’s every wish–a landscape hospitable in the extreme, which is one definition of a garden–and my grandfather’s vegetable patch in summer offered a fair copy of that paradise.