The Garden Next Door

by Victoria (Woskoff) Bestock

          When I was a child we lived in Sunnyside in a brick house which was attached to all the other identical brick houses on the block, a wall of brick running down the street, punctuated by pairs of front doors.  A common pathway led from the street to each front stoop, the row of pathways measuring out the front garden plots which were bordered front and back by the house and sidewalk and separated from the other neighbor’s garden by privet hedges.  We shared our path and stoop with Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales. 

          Ivy draped the fronts of the houses.  Some of the neighbors tore down the ivy, complaining that it brought ants, but Gonzales on his side, my parents on ours kept the ivy.  My mother liked it because it cooled the house in the summer, and my father liked it because it turned flaming colors in the fall.

 

          On either side of the front stoop, tall evergreens guarded the house. Under our evergreen Father planted violets.  Mother always wanted to cut the top off the tree in order to let more light in the front window, but Father, who usually did whatever Mother desired, disagreed about this.  He said it would destroy the shape of the tree to cut off the top, and he liked the symmetry of the entrance with the two trees like sentinels on either side of the front stoop.  Father pointed out that the tree was healthy and beautiful and required no care at all.  Mother nagged for a while, but Father was the one who wielded the garden tools.  In the end he just never managed to get around to it, and the two matching trees remained perfectly conical, luxuriant and majestic until after my parents moved away 20 years later.

          The kitchen stood at the back of the house, facing the back yard.  I can remember when there was a rickety wooden back porch like everyone else’s, but Mother, who was not an outdoors person, had our back porch enclosed in glass when I was four or five years old, and we ate all our meals there, surrounded by greenery, protected by glass.  The screen door of the porch opened to a shared brick pathway that divided the back yards.  On two sides of the yard privet hedges separated our yard from the neighbors, who lived one stoop down from us, and from the Center Court, a commonly owned lawn. Gnarled sycamore trees ringed the outside edge of the lawn.  Mother was glad there was no tree in front of our back porch to block her view of the center court, or to cut off the light to our yard. 

          A narrow cement pathway ran around the whole court between the lawn and the back gardens and it, too, had hedges on both sides, which made the pathway almost like a tunnel when we were still too little to see over the top of the hedge.  To go visiting someone in the court I had to count the gaps in the hedges as I went by the back pathways to be sure whose back yard I was about to walk into.   Aunt Estelle was two gaps up on the other side of the court.

          Some of the back yards were just flat dirt patches but a few boasted lawns. Isabel's back yard had a slide and a sandbox for her and her baby sister.  Ours had a clothesline as a centerpiece, like a rectangular tree with large white flowers hanging from it.  Crabgrass and weeds filled the rest of the yard, but in front of the hedge on the side of the yard father had planted a wide bed of irises, daffodils and tiger lilies, set off from the lawn by bricks set diagonally into the ground.  Father gave me the small rectangle of dirt next to the house between the two back windows and allowed me to plant anything I wanted, so that I'd have flowers of my own to pick for vases in the house.  I wasn't allowed to pick Father's flowers.   I grew morning glories and edible pod peas on a trellis that ran up the wall between the windows, and planted marigolds and portulaca in front.

          Sometimes Mother and Mrs.Gonzales would be hanging clothes in the back yard at the same time, chatting as they worked, while Father and Mr.Gonzales gardened in the front.  The Gonzaleses were good neighbors. We got their mail and paper for them when they went on vacation, and they did the same for us.  When my mother got sick, Mrs. Gonzales came over with hot soup for Mother and a casserole for my dad and me.

          Once when my mother told Grandma that we were going to the country for the weekend, Grandma said, "This is the country."  Grandma lived on the Lower East Side, where there were cement stoops, and dirt yards, and nothing grew at all.  I knew that where I lived was special and beautiful, with its green center court, the hedges framing each garden and the court, and the shade of the drooping bushes in the summerhouse.

          The summerhouse wasn't a house at all, but a flagstone patio at one end of the court, surrounded by flowering bushes.  It was safe from street traffic, and we played there after school, coming in for dinner, going out again until dark.  In the summertime we’d head for the summerhouse right after breakfast to see if our friends were there yet, playing alone until someone showed up.  Children flowed through the summerhouse all day, dropping in and out of games that seemed never to end. The older boys (there were four of them on the court) never went there, and I was glad, because I was afraid of them; they were so noisy and so big and were already in junior high School.

 

          Lawns occupied most front yards, perhaps with a picnic table, perhaps bordered by some low flowers.   Of all the people on the whole block, only Mr. Gonzales next door had a real garden, with flowers crammed in between the hedges growing almost as tall as Mr. Gonzales himself.  Flowers grew there that I didn't see in anyone else's yard -- stripe-leafed calla lilies with huge orange blooms, blood-colored coxcombs, and pansies that had faces, and up against the hedge that separated his garden from the sidewalk, giant dahlias more perfect than the pictures on the box.  Flowers filled the entire area, with small paths through the tall spires so he could work the ground and pick flowers for the house.  It had started when he first moved there with the luxuriance of an English garden, but it had grown into a messy jungle of brilliant and exotic plants.  Just looking at it made me happy, and a little excited, too, wondering if wild animals or maybe elves lived among the dense shrubs and tall stems of flowers.  

 

          My father, inspired by Mr. Gonzales, kept struggling with our front garden, planting flowers, watering, and weeding and worrying.  But the soil was poor, so things didn't grow well in our yard, and he was always disappointed.  Gonzales would sometimes give him cuttings when he thinned the plants to make the remaining ones stronger.  Father would plant them, but they rarely grew or bloomed once they moved to our yard, certainly not with the enthusiasm they showed for our neighbor.  It's not that my father didn't try.  He spent time in the garden, loved plants, and the houseplants definitely flourished under his care.  But outdoors it was Gonzales who was the master magician, and my father the apprentice, watching, asking questions, trying to duplicate the riot of color and bloom that was just over our hedge. 

          I was usually afraid of big people, but for some reason I was never afraid of Gonzales.  He had a quietness about him.  Of course I only saw him when he was outside puttering in his garden, separating bulbs, weeding or fertilizing plants so tall they hid him completely, and at those times he was completely at peace. 

 

          There was a Mrs. Gonzales, but I don't have much of a picture of her in my head any more-- just a vague impression of someone small and round.  I would see her coming up the walk and she would smile and wave and walk into the house, but I rarely spoke to her or heard her speak except for one time when I helped her in with some heavy grocery bags, and she gave me two cookies and a glass of milk to thank me.  It was the only time I was inside their house, which was the mirror image of ours in floor plan, but totally different in feel.  Mother had chosen simple, straightforward furniture, but Mrs.Gonzales lived among ornately carved chests and delicate figurines, and overstuffed chairs.   Lace curtains hung over the windows and lace doilies decorated the end tables and the armrests of chairs, bright white against the dark brown wood.  The house had a used and comfortable feel to it, as though the chairs were just waiting for you to sink into them.  It was feminine in taste, and I had the impression that Mrs.Gonzales lived there alone.

          That's because Mr. Gonzales lived outdoors in his garden.  In the morning he watered, and pulled a few weeds before going to work.  In the evening he was there from just after dinner until sunset, puttering and planting and thinning and when it was dark he'd carry armloads of cut flowers into the house.  I would see them later arranged in a huge vase on the table of their open back porch.

 

          Gonzales made bread in a big bakery.  It seemed perfectly fitting to me that someone who made flowers to fill your eyes with beauty would also make bread and pastries to fill your tummy with food.  At the time I had no idea that you didn't need much education to be a baker, no idea that Gonzales had probably not had any education beyond high school. I assumed that Gonzales must be college-educated like my father, because of the way my father stood chatting quietly across the hedge, nodding, and listening as Gonzales explained and expounded.  My father was very wise, so if he treated Gonzales with reverence, Gonzales must be a genius.  And in the matter of growing things, he was.

 

          Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales had no children, but unlike many childless couples, they were very comfortable around us kids. Gonzales treated us the same way he treated the butterflies; as part of the outdoors.  One didn't disturb or become disturbed by the butterflies or the children.  Even our noise didn't seem to bother him.  Once when we were playing hide and seek, a friend went to hide among Mr. Gonzales' giant flowers.  I saw Gonzales peer out of the living room window with a worried look on his face.     

          "Don't go in there," I called to my friend. "You'll step on the flowers.  You have to play in my yard."  Mr. Gonzales nodded and smiled at me and closed the drapes.

          He only came into our house once.  He'd come home from work while we were eating dinner, and we heard a long wailing cry outside.  Then he strode into our kitchen, waving his arms speaking very rapidly in a mix of Spanish and English even though he spoke perfect English the rest of the time.  I was frightened.  My father stood up and firmly, quietly walked Gonzales back through the living room and out the front door, asking questions in a soothing voice.  Then Father came back alone, walking slowly and looking very serious.

          "Come with me," he said.  Holding my wrist very tightly he half-dragged me to the garden next door. 

          "Did you do this?" Father demanded, pointing.  At first I didn’t see what was wrong.  Then I noticed that I could see a fence all the way on the other side of the garden, and I'd never seen it before.

          "Oh Mr. Gonzales!  I cried.  "What happened to your dahlias?  All your beautiful dahlias!"  Father turned to me looking very stern.

          "Did you cut them?"  he asked.  I just stared at him, too stunned to say anything.

           Mr. Gonzales saw my face, and relaxed. "I can see it wasn't Victoria. “

           My father kept shaking his head.  He looked sick. 

           “I just don't know why anyone would do such a thing—why a person would be so—so destructive," he said.  “Maybe it’s those boys down the street.  They’re so wild.  Could be.  It’s Halloween tonight.  This looks like Halloween mischief.”

           Gonzales looked puzzled.

           You know, trick or treat?” I said.  “ Someone played a mean trick on you."

           "We had Halloween when I was growing up." Gonzales shook his head sadly. "We did trick or treat.  What we did was we dressed in costumes and went door to door.  You had to do a trick to get a treat.  My brothers and I would sing a song.  That's what we meant by trick or treat.  Not damaging property.   Not stealing someone's flowers."  Gonzales turned and looked down at me from his great height that made even my father look short.

          "I'm sorry I thought it was you," he said.  I was astonished.  Even when my parents were wrong, they never said so.  "My wife told me it wouldn't have been you the way your Dad loves flowers. 'Such a nice, well brought up girl,' she said.  'She wouldn't.'  That's what she said.  I was just so angry I wasn't thinking right."

          "They were so very beautiful," I said.  "Will they come back next year, Mr. Gonzales?"  Mr. Gonzales smiled sadly. 

          "Thanks for saying that.  Yes, they will.  Maybe I'll move them over by the house, a bit further from the street before next year, eh?  So they'll be safe."   

          After that Mr. Gonzales always kept an eye out when the big boys from down the street walked by on the way to the playground, making sure they weren't up to any mischief around his flowers.  And one day when the boys stopped to tease me, calling me “stupid little girl” as though the mere fact of my being a girl was disgusting, he stood up and leaned on his rake. 

          "You boys go along." he said mildly, "and don't bother this young lady.”  Startled, the boys stared at him for a minute, and then shouting, ran down the street.   I loved it that Mr. Gonzales called me a "young lady." 

                        *                                  *                                  *

          Everything changed after the accident.  Mr. Gonzales came home early; one foot in a cast, limping slowly along aided by a single crutch.  The other hand was wrapped in a cocoon of bandages.  Father stood talking to him for a long time. Then Father came inside and sat down heavily at the kitchen table, shaking his head.

Mother brought him coffee, and they sat and talked while I tried to be invisible so they would let me listen.  There had been an accident at the bakery.  Gonzales had caught his thumb in a slicing machine and it was so mangled it had to be amputated.   When he had jumped back in pain, he knocked over a large vat of hot oil, which broke two bones in his foot and splashed him with scalding fat.  The doctor said he would have to stay home because he couldn't use crutches with only one good hand.

          "Can you imagine?"  said my father, in a daze.  "They fired him!  Just like that. As though it were his fault.   I asked didn't he get workman's comp, and he said they paid him $2,000.00.  He said it like it’s a lot of money.  The man will never work as a baker again."  

          "But that’s terrible!" said my mother.  "It’s not enough.  They should pay you your salary for all the years you can't work when something like that happens."

          "Gonzales said if we know anyone wants a house, they have to sell."  With bitterness in his voice, Father added, "He said to tell them it's got a nice garden."

 

          And then, one chilly fall day, they were gone, and a middle-aged German couple, the Hermans moved in.  The Hermans were always very neat and prim looking, and they were not at all friendly like everyone else on the court.  They didn't have any children either, and I'd been hoping to have someone next door I could play with.  These people didn't even say hello even when we were walking down the path side by side to our front doors!  My father thought they were rude.  My mother was suspicious of them.  It was only four years after the Second World War ended, and to her all Germans were the enemy.

          Mr. Herman had very short gray hair, like iron wire sticking up from his head.  Mrs. Herman wore squarish suits with little collars, and real gold jewelry.  My mother brought over a casserole the day they moved in, and Mrs. Herman said thank you, but looked at it with distaste, and wrinkled her nose as though it smelled bad.

          The next week when I came home after my piano lesson, Father was standing on their side of the stoop talking to Mr. Herman. 

          "It's not just a garden, its a work of art," Father was saying. There was a pleading tone to his voice.

          "Too much trouble," said Mr. Herman.  "I don't have time to care for a garden.  And it's too messy.  A lawn, that's the thing.  I'm having all this taken out, and grass put in.  Sod.  You can sit on a lawn in the evening.  The way this is," he gestured at the jumble of dry, head-high stalks, "you can't do a thing with it."

          My father argued.  He went over every day to talk to Mr. Herman.  He asked him to wait until he'd seen the garden through one season of blooms.  "You don't even know what you'll be destroying," he told him.  "Just wait until spring.  You'll see what you have there, hiding in the ground.  It will give you such pleasure." 

          Mr. Herman stared at him. "It's not your land," he said coldly. "You don't have to do the work."

          "It won't be any work," my father went on, sounding almost desperate.  "It will take care of itself for two, three years.  There'll be bulbs blooming as soon as the snow is melted, and summer flowers, tall and full, and in the fall, oh, you should see the dahlias!"  

          But Mr. Herman was rigidly determined.  And the next week two men came and started digging everything up.  Father went over and rescued some bulbs, but most of it had been destroyed before he'd gotten home from work.  The bulbs my father picked up had gashes in them from the spades and hoes.  He held them in both hands, caressing them sadly as though they were little birds with broken wings.   The calla lilies.  The roses.  The rubrum lilies with petals that curled all the way back.  The coxcombs and  delphiniums.  They were all gone.

  

          A week later the sod was laid; boring, perfect blades of grass, without even a border of flowers or bushes around the edge.  It looked like the clipped iron wire of Mr. Herman's hair. 

          They tore out the ivy, too.  For the past 50 years the ivy had climbed and spread, reaching across the tops of the adjacent front doors, branches from one yard intertwining with those from the next. So when the Hermans uprooted their ivy plants, more than half the ivy on our walls died.  

          Mother always felt that Mrs. Herman, who was born wealthy, looked down on her because of her Lower East Side origins.  Mother took to calling them "the Germans" instead of  "the Hermans," with the implication that they were mass murderers hovering in her tone of voice.  They were cold, arrogant people who never fit into the community, never invited anyone over, never chatted across the back hedge, never even said hello.  And in a way they were mass murderers, having destroyed whole civilizations of bulbs and perennials.  Maybe we could have done more to break the ice, but father couldn't forgive them for the senseless destruction of the garden that had been Gonzales' magnum opus. 

          As for me, I stayed out of their way as much as possible.  Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales, the Hermans disliked children, complained about the noise, and yelled at anyone who went into their yard to retrieve a ball.  For the whole rest of the time I lived in Sunnyside, we each sat on our matching porches, pretending the other family was invisible.

        I never looked at the tidy, perfect lawn next door without some sadness for the wild disarray of color and exotic plants that had once been there, and the tall, quiet man who was an integral part of it, moving among the plants, pulling a weed here, nursing a tender bulb there, half hidden by the giant dahlias and the head-high lilies. 

Thirty years later, when I bought my own house, I looked with disapproval upon the neat, flat lawn in front.  Little by little, adding a few lilies one year and some tall crocosmias the next, I have replaced it all with flowers.

Having grown up in Sunnyside Gardens between a house on 46th Street and another on 43rd Street, Victoria Bestock now lives in Seattle, Washington.