They made the space around them seem bigger than it was. Then it was big enough to encompass everyone who touched their path. Because their apartment was small, the sidewalk became their living room. The kids turned that living room into museums of another man’s treasure, and space centers where ships would launch, the home base of superheroes where they would take off with their super-kid capes swirling behind them, the starting point of a million races, most still unfinished. The dad was the mayor of that stretch of block. The boys were endless entertainment and incessant quizzing of strangers. They were free, one of the few free families I’ve ever seen. No tv, no Internet, no cell phones. Every day it was trips to the park where the boys became expert explorers. I would trust myself in a true Armageddon with those boys, only aged 4 and 6, than I would most adults. The other member of their family was my very most favorite neighbor.
And then, suddenly, two Novembers ago they moved away. And those wise old boys took their mom with them. She was my gardening buddy, writing friend, and frequent confidante. We exchanged notes on everything from native plants to self-watering systems to writing our life’s stories. She plunked a big gray tub in my front yard to try out a homemade contraption to help plants wick up the water on their own, then we watched as her green beans shot up much quicker and with more grace than my feeble plants struggling alongside in the Brooklyn clay. That same tub with the same contraption overwintered here and now is home to a couple of the heirloom tomatoes that have populated my backyard.
I’ve mentioned her move only in passing even though I frequently recounted our friend-neighbor-gardening adventures before that. I think, possibly, I feared that speaking it made it more real or significant. The gifts of native plants she had rescued from abandonment at the local community garden where she and her family rented a plot felt just a little lonelier without her fellow admiring eyes to note how much they’ve grown, and to measure with our observations. I’ve commented before about gardening often being a solitary endeavor, and have shared my mother’s observation (who does not identify herself as a gardener) that those who do it seem to like it because it is their one time away from the rest of the world. For awhile, I liked it precisely for the opposite reason.
For a time, gardening was one time I wanted could literally share that little corner of my world. We worked out agreements about where her tub would sit in the yard, making sure each of our plants got to share in the good sun and soil. Her husband, the mayor, would come over and help turn the soil in my big compost bin, while their boys ran roughshod over the rest of the yard, stopping only to pick a worm out of the newly freed black-brown soil. We split the cost of books on foraging for wild edibles and how to maximize use of container plants. With her, my garden was not my hermitage. Just like her little apartment down the street, she made my yard-garden seem bigger, the closer in we inspected and worked it. Every nuance in leaf color or soil consistency was the source of great discovery and possibly the basis of greater extrapolation. We were going to put in a rooftop garden the summer following the November that she left. At least that’s what we said before they moved. While I love working my little yard, I still don’t know that I’d have actually had the time, patience or resources for something of that scale. And in a way I’m grateful that we can still believe in our minds it would have happened, that we would have remained very most favorites with each other without interruption and taken on super-gardening prowess and powers. As far away as she is, she’s still my neighbor, and every bit the inspiration she ever was.
Occasionally, she reads here. By this post, I’m sending a message of fond remembrance as well as an invitation to return some afternoon to launch a ship, finish a race, become superheroes. Or just to embrace a moment in our shared corner of Earth.