A Season in Plot #22, Chelsea Community Garden
...I’d erased almost all memories of the time before her death. I only know what she looked from snapshots in the family album and have little sense of what it was like to have a family or to be a child. What I do remember are visual details of that house where we lived on Litchfield Road in Port Washington, New York.
It’s bad enough, I suppose, that I never had a chance to understand just how much a mother’s death matters to a daughter, but another really bad thing started happening. If I were given to hyperbole, I’d say that planet earth was knocked off axis and started spinning the wrong way because of the jolt my father got when he met the nurse who brought my mother home on the plane so she could die in bed.
Her name was Lou and she didn’t look like any woman I’d ever seen. She wore pancake, rouge, mascara and eye shadow, drew on eyebrows and lips and polished her nails bright red. Her nose was too big and her eyes a bit small and her hair color varied slightly depending on the box of dye, though it was always some version of brown. Tiny pearls were sewn along the neck and down the front of her angora sweaters and she wore falsies to fill them out. Her skirts were narrow and her heels high. She had a second husband in Chicago, but she wanted a new and different life as along as she kept the old one. She would leave and come back for the six years that she was entangled in my father’s life. And mine.
Another major change happened that year. My father’s parents sold their house in Indiana and came east to live with us. Probably my father’s mother decided her son needed her help taking care of me or perhaps he was out of his mind and actually asked them to do this. Grandma was a tiny worried woman, tight-lipped. A teetotaler. Grandpa was tall and his skin was gray-blue from a last ditch treatment with mercury for his chronic stomach problems. He was quiet and kind.
By the time I was thirteen, Lou had divorced her second-husband and my father had quit his job at the International Statistical Bureau on the 26th floor of the Empire State building. He wanted to start a business. To fund this new venture, he sold the large house that my mother had loved.
He married Lou that June in a formal wedding at the Congregational Church in Manhasset. And then the five of us, my father, Lou, grandma, grandpa and I moved into a tiny Levitt town house in Rosalyn Heights. I had never seen the cartoon of a drunk man standing on the sidewalk peering at the doorways of a row of tiny identical houses wondering which one was his and couldn’t have imagined that one would be ours.
Lou took me to Chicago for that summer to stay again with her now ex-second husband. Just before we left, grandpa dug two strips along the wire fence in that tiny plot back-to-back with all the other grass plots in back of all the other houses on that block and the adjoining. Tiny leaves had just appeared and I didn’t think all his effort was going to amount to much.
Lou’s ex-husband didn’t know she’d married my father and it was important that he not find out. I was told to call her Lou out loud and whisper mother when he wasn’t around. Finally the summer ended and Lou took me back.
I was amazed when I saw grandpa’s garden – red, orange, yellow, pink flowers, so many beautiful flowers. Years later I understood that he’d bought packets of seeds, cosmos, zinnias, marigolds and how easy it is to grow a mass of color, but still, the memory of all those flowers symbolizes grandpa.
I believed he loved me perhaps because we sat together on the couch that had been my mother’s and laughed as we watched Gorgeous George wrestle on the tiny TV that my father had bought a year before she died. We liked it when Gorgeous George jumped off the ropes and onto some guy whose head he bashed into the canvas while sitting on his chest. We clapped when he strutted around the ring and were happy when he inevitably won.
That following spring grandpa’s stomach problems were no longer kept under control by Pepto-Bismol and he went into the hospital. The surgeons discovered cancer. Perhaps he lived three weeks. He was eighty-five when he died.
If life was fair, grandpa would have lived and grandma would have died. Then years of quiet, continual conflict between grandma and my father over his love of Scotch would never have happened. And grandpa and I could have continued watching the Golden Age of Wrestling, sitting together on the couch.