From The Paris Review:
Ma thought it was a good idea. That we work together in the garden. But it wasn’t a garden then, just a long rectangle of funky-smelling earth behind a two-story apartment house in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. An elderly couple named Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz owned the house and backyard. This was in the early seventies, and already the Jews were moving out. I was ten or twelve the summer we worked in the earth. The Schwartzes lived downstairs from us in that house, and on Fridays their apartment went semidark because of the Sabbath. What a beautiful word for something I didn’t know anything about. Then, one day, I saw the tattooed numbers on Mrs. Schwartz’s arm and in a flash everything I’d learned in school flooded my mind and heart: all those bodies laid to waste, gold teeth extracted and made into something else, the gas chambers and the musicians who played as the walking dead stood naked, hoping for water, hoping to be cleaned.
And there was more. There is always more pain and beauty. Recently, a friend told me about the gardens Jews kept for Nazi families who wanted something beautiful to look at while they smelled death at work, had schnapps and what all outside, the condemned Jews not lifting their heads as they worked the earth and tended flowers, such beautiful living organisms thriving on a plantation where murder was grown and harvested. And I think of Mrs. Schwartz now as I think about the earth behind our house—her house—and the numbers blooming on her arm like flowers. I never got to ask her how old she was when she was marked like that, and did she remember or see barbed wire fencing the condemned in like the wiring around flower beds and vegetable beds our innocent neighbors used to keep predators out? Nor did I get to say to her, even as those numbers on her arm blossom and die in my memory, What is it about flowers that no matter where they’re grown—in death camps or by the sea, in private homes or on the border of war zones—why is it they keep on flowering while insisting on their right to inspire feelings in us that we can barely know, or articulate in all our truth and terribleness?
When I think about the Schwartzes, I think about their building, our home, and I think about the steep staircase leading up from the street to our apartment, and the long shape of our apartment itself, and the fact that we lived next door to a gas station where fumes bloomed. This is the only apartment I have vivid memories of—we moved a fair amount when I was a kid—and part of what I remember about it is the garden or, more accurately, how the garden came to be.
It wasn’t anything but overly fertilized rust-colored dirt when Ma said she thought something could grow there. She was always trying to make a family, and to make that family grow. But there was so much bad earth. Our father didn’t live with us; for most of the time I knew him, he lived with his mother, in Crown Heights, a bus ride away. It had always been this way. My parents visited, and on weekends out my father took me and my little brother on long walks around the city. We saw the beautiful consumerist goods on Madison Avenue, and, in the Village, heard women catcalling to passersby from the Women’s House of Detention. Rainy days in Chinatown, and some snowy days at the Guggenheim Museum, or looking at the precipitation falling on the stone lions at the New York Public Library. And then there was my father’s hand, or, more accurately, certainly from an emotional point of view, my hand in his tougher rougher bigger hand and it was the best foreign feeling in the world: I knew his hand but not him, and even now that feels like defeat, my remembering the pleasure of my hand in his, and all that I wanted from him that wasn’t forthcoming. My dreams of him were always tied up with things ending—at the end of our Saturdays together, he took a gypsy cab home—and so with a kind of death. On some level I must have wanted him to stay even though I couldn’t stand him, or stand him leaving. In any case, I can’t believe these memories continue to make me vulnerable to him, the way flowers are to our human hands—cut them or leave them alone? Water them or let nature take care of them? The flowers are vulnerable to us!—and remind me that all I want to do is find my father again, but in a better person, a he who will protect me from the original father who maybe taught us how to cultivate flowers, but certainly not how to find soul-nourishing love when it’s needed, which is always.
I don’t remember when my mother suggested growing flowers. But for sure her impulse was in part inspired by her desire to keep looking for activities that prompted and encouraged our father to be a father to his sons. That was part of what mediocre therapists might call their dynamic—her hope and his pulling back, her cajoling him and telling him what he must do, and him doing it sometimes, but always grudgingly. Daddy was Ma’s only real baby, or the only one who was allowed to be a baby. I remember her saying she would ask the Schwartzes about the land, and I remember my father standing with me at the Schwartzes’ door soon thereafter, and the deeply kind Mr. Schwartz telling my father that the dirt back there had been overly fertilized by someone a long time before, and it had been left untended after that. In my memory or my imagination, which is usually the same thing, my father says to Mr. Schwartz, I’ll take care of it. Or perhaps it was my mother who asked the Schwartzes about the ground, then decided we would make the best of it. Because that’s what she always did. And maybe what I wanted my father to do.
Link to the rest at The Paris Review
PG remembers the nice guy who always wore a yarmulke in the shop where he took his dress shirts and dry-cleaning in Chicago a long time ago who also had blue numbers tattooed on his forearm that showed on warm days when he had his shirtsleeves rolled up.
PG never commented on the numbers since he knew what they represented and thought the nice guy might not want to talk about the experience. The nice guy never made any attempt to hide the blue numbers and had certainly earned the right to show them or cover them a million times over without anyone questioning his choice.
Some other guys who had fought in World War II or Korea also had tattoos that identified them with their experiences as well and some of them were detailed and colorful and said things like “Iwo” or “Chosin” but seeing those tattoos never effected PG as much as the tattoo that the nice guy in the yarmulke showed on warm days. That’s the one PG remembers vividly.