The visit went well, Mrs Mottram pointing to corners she could no longer actually see, telling Shifra what ought to be showing in each place, entertained to find Shifra writing down every word.
“Well, I have to take notes in case I forget. And I need to know what to do to keep them healthy,” Shifra explained.
“You ought to have my gardener in,” said Mrs Mottram. “Sam knows his business. He started out in construction, but he got laid off in the downturn. He wandered around a bit, and found he liked growing things, and went from there. He does walls and steps, too, any kind of building in the garden.
“I probably couldn’t afford him,” Shifra said sadly.
“Maybe just once in a while,” suggested Mrs Mottram. “He’d love to come back. He wasn’t a great talker, but now and then he used to wander by just to sit in the garden, to enjoy the peace. I liked that.” She smiled. “I felt as if I’d somehow persuaded a wild creature to eat out of my hand. Do you know what I mean?”
Shifra nodded. “I’d feel that way, too. Though when we have the swing set up and the little ones are bigger, it may not be so peaceful!”
“Never mind. It will adapt to your needs. And when the children are grown and gone, the peace will still be there.”
With the arrival of warm weather, the garden came into its own. As soon as Baruch installed the swing set – he had never worked with concrete and the whole experience was a little traumatic but, they both agreed, worth it – Shifra discovered how many friends her children had.
“And the mothers like sitting on the patio with me,” she reported to Baruch. “I’m actually making friends, finally! Honestly, without the garden I’d never have met so many people. At least not without making a big effort.”
“I’m not using the hammock much, though,” Baruch reminded her. “it’s too busy!”
Shifra turned an apologetic face to him, but he laughed at her. “The porch is fine. One of the boys I’m tutoring learns a lot better there than inside, too.”
Feeling guilty that Baruch was working extra hours because she wasn’t, Shifra said nothing.
As the summer went on, and Mrs Mottram continued her regular visits, Shifra discovered plants with scented flowers, scented leaves, scented stems. “They’re marvelous, but I don’t know which brocha to make on which plant,” she complained to Baruch. “You’d better give me a private shiur!”
“Not until Mrs Mottram tells you which ones die down in winter.”
More information. More notes.
Mrs Mottram introduced Shifra to the little ornamental willow.
“A willow! I always wanted a willow! And in my own garden!”
“Yes, in your own garden,” she smiled at Shifra’s excitement. “It’s only a bush; the garden’s not big enough for one of those monster weeping willows. But you’d better cut it back hard as soon as you can, before it takes over this entire corner.”
That evening Shifra greeted Baruch with “Baruch! We have a willow!”
“Why are you so worked up?”
“For Sukkos!” Shifra explained. “I’ve always wanted our very own aravos!”
“It won’t be any good for those,” Baruch said, examining the shrub she pointed out. “The shoots probably aren’t straight enough. But it’ll be fine for hoshanos.”
News of the garden began to make its way around the community.
Baruch arrived home one day to see a teacher shepherding her class back to a fleet of parents’ cars parked along the curb. “What was all that?” he asked.
Shifra beamed. “Tova’s teacher brought her whole class here to learn about brochos on scented plants! Two other teachers asked if they could bring their classes, too. Isn’t that lovely? It’s like doing a chesed without any effort at all.”
Baruch laughed. “No effort? What about the hours you spend maintaining that garden?”
“Oh, Baruch, that’s pleasure! And I’m sure it’s good therapy, too.”
“Well, then, I have some good news for you. My trial period at work is over, and I’m going onto full salary, now. I think we can afford that gardener – not a lot, but maybe four hours a month. Not yet. When my next paycheck comes through, maybe.”
“Baruch, you treasure! He’ll tell me what needs doing. I’m not asking to have somebody else do the work; I just need guidance from someone who can actually see. Won’t Mrs Mottram be pleased!”
“Never mind Mrs Mottram. Frankly, I’m still not thrilled with the amount of time you spend with her. If she were frum, it would be a different matter.”
“All we talk about is gardening.”
“It’s changing you.”
“You’re different. All right, yes, I admit you’re more put-together, but you used to be more – more – “
“Well…yes. Nowadays you act as if you know all about everything. It gives you an air of authority, but it makes me worry.”
“Oh, Baruch, I’m still learning…I guess I always will be…but the other day I told Mrs Mottram the day lilies needed something behind them, and when she asked me what I suggested and I said Shasta daisies, she was really enthusiastic. She thinks I have a gift for garden design.” She sighed. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could design gardens for other people? Wouldn’t that be heavenly?”
“You think you could actually make a career out of it?”
Shifra looked at the children playing on the swings and baby Chavi standing barefoot, curling her toes ecstatically on the freshly-mown lawn. “One day. Right now I have a different career.”
“If you brought in a little money, you could have the gardener more often than just a few hours a month,” Baruch suggested craftily.
“I know, Baruch, but what can I do?”
Even the lure of extra help in the garden didn’t produce a job for Shifra, though she scanned the local advertising circular faithfully.
“I’m just not a teacher,” she told Baruch. “The schools keep advertising for classroom support workers, but I’d hate every single moment.”
“Why do you say that? I’ve watched you with the kids, and you give them so much!” he protested.
“But it’s not a classroom setting. I really hated school. Even the idea of going into one gives me a funny feeling in my stomach. You don’t know what I go through before Parents’ Evenings, knowing I have to walk into a school, even one where my kids are happy.”
“All right, then, school jobs are out. Isn’t there anything else?”
“All the other jobs seem to be so high-powered. You know, fully computer-literate and bookkeeping, too, that kind of thing.”
Baruch tried to imagine Shifra in a position like that and had to admit it wasn’t for her. “There must be something,” he said hopelessly.
“That’s what I thought,” said Shifra. “I keep going through the ads. But there isn’t.”
Summer drew to a close. With the Yomim Noraim on the way Shifra’s thoughts turned away from the garden.
“As soon as the holidays are over,” she promised Mrs Mottram, “I’ll be ready to talk about preparing for winter. But right now – ”
“Oh, I understand! Your religion thing,” Mrs Mottram said easily. “Have you called Sam?”
“He’s going to come next month.”
The Yomim Tovim seemed to fly past that year. It rained on Sukkos, but the sukka was on the patio they had had built just outside the living room, where they had put in French doors.
“It’s probably wrong for the period of the house,” Shifra had admitted to Baruch, “but with a view like that, I’d be an idiot not to take advantage of it.”
Shifra reveled in the convenience and the almost dry floor in the sukka. “I never imagined Sukkos could be so easy!” she enthused. “All those years going down flights of stairs and out to the sukka by the garbage pails, and now this – it’s incredible! Just out through the French doors and there we are!”
On Hoshana Rabba, Baruch came in saying, “Do you mind if Rabbi Feld cuts some of our hoshanos? He said they were beautiful.”
“Rabbi Feld!” Shifra’s hands stopped cutting carrots. “Everybody says he’s so medakdek –”
“Yup. This is some special garden. I have to admit it. You’re on to something.”
Sam the gardener arrived in October, a taciturn man with a gentle Hispanic accent and a smile like a burst of sun. “I understand,” he told Shifra. “You just call me when you need me, or when you need advice. I’m on my own. I make my own schedule.”
“Mrs Mottram said you liked just sitting in the garden,” Shifra said. “It’s not as peaceful as it was in her day, not with the children playing in it, but any weekday you’d like to come, you’re welcome.”
Sam nodded. “I may do that,” he said.
He was a quick worker and, after another visit, had tidied the garden and readied it for the cold weather.
November brought wind and rain, and a spell of winter chill followed, so Mrs Mottram discontinued her visits. No longer in constant need of a notebook, Shifra began walking to Sunnyfields on Shabbos afternoons.
“Won’t you consider coming to us for Shabbos?” she asked Mrs Mottram.
Mrs Mottram shook her head firmly. “I’d do everything wrong and neither of us would enjoy the experience. But you know, I’ve dug out a pair of pretty china candlesticks I picked up somewhere in Europe – my husband and I used to tour the Continent every few years – and I’ve started to light candles Friday night. It’s so pleasant, sitting here with that glow on the sideboard… I can see that well enough. Don’t mention it to my children, though. Especially not Joyce!” She paused. “Poor Joyce. I think there’s a divorce on the way…I’m glad. She’s never been a warm person, but he’s made her hard.”
Shifra walked home in a thoughtful mood.
“Baruch,” she began as soon as she walked in the door, “I worry about Mrs Mottram. She’s a kind old lady and I’ve gained a lot from her, but one day she’ll be facing the Yeshiva shel Maaloh, and what’s she going to do for zchusim?”
Baruch considered this. “You’re wrong. She does have zchusim,” he said at last. “And it’s because of that garden. The fruit trees she planted – every brocha we make on those apples and pears goes to her account. What about our brochas on the scented plants? And you have whole classrooms of children coming to learn about those brochos, too. In spring we’ll be making a brocha on the ilonos and I bet we’ll have a lot of people asking to make the brocha here. Hoshanos from the little willow – that’s another zechus. She has all kinds of chasodim through the garden to her credit: you’ve made friends, the kids have friends; you’re more self-assured – count it all up.”
Shifra caught her breath. “Baruch, that’s beautiful. I feel a lot better. And today she told me she’s started to light Shabbos candles. Isn’t it wonderful? It’s probably the only Jewish thing she knows how to do.”
“Well, don’t get too starry-eyed. She probably lights them after shkia,” Baruch reminded her dryly.
On one of her Shabbos visits Shifra found a well-dressed middle-aged man sitting with Mrs Mottram. Shifra guessed at once that he was one of Mrs Mottram’s sons: he had his mother’s bright, sharp eyes, although, set in a younger face, their sharpness gave him a slightly rapacious look.
“Shifra! I was hoping Ray would stay long enough to meet you,” Mrs Mottram greeted her. “This is my son from Chicago. The other one lives in Vancouver,” she added inconsequently. “Ray, Mrs Levenberg.”
The man nodded at Shifra and held out a hand.
“Oh, dear! Now you’ll be offended!” exclaimed Shifra. “I’m so sorry – Orthodox women don’t shake hands with men.”
There was a moment of extreme social discomfort as Ray took his hand back, but he recovered quickly. “It’s still a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Levenberg. My mother really enjoys your visits.”
Shifra blushed. “To be honest, I only had my own benefit in mind, so nobody ought to be thanking me.”
“Well, we’re both gaining, then,” said Mrs Mottram. “And I’m so glad you’ve had me to visit in return. If there was anything I missed, it was my garden.”
“You do have a view here, Mom,” said Ray.
“Yes, but it’s not the same as a place of my own.”
“It’s Mrs Levenberg’s, now,” Ray reminded her.
“She makes me feel as if she’s my garden’s caretaker, Ray. She appreciates what I’ve done with it. And no money could have bought me somebody to talk gardening to! Heaven knows none of my children are interested.”
“Sorry, Mom. Numbers are more my line.”
“I know. Your conversation is even more boring than Edward’s.” Mrs Mottram slapped herself on her wrist. “I shouldn’t have said that, Ray, I’m sorry. I know you try, both of you. I had hopes for Joyce…”
“Don’t give up on Joyce, yet, Mom,” said Ray. “She’s in a cutthroat profession, after all. Manhattan real estate…”
Suddenly losing her vitality, Mrs Mottram sighed. “It’s that husband. You see,” she went on to Shifra, “Joyce married out.”
“She told me when we bought your house.”
“I wasn’t happy about it but Joyce isn’t the sort of person to take my advice, so I kept my feelings to myself. But if the marriage breaks up, I’d be delighted. I don’t feel comfortable with him.”
“I know what you mean,” said Ray. “It’s nothing I can put my finger on, but I kind of hoped a brother-in-law would be a real part of the family – you know, joining in, having family get-togethers. I assumed, somehow, that he’d be a friend. And he isn’t.”
“It could simply be the distance,” Shifra offered, trying to paper over family cracks. “You in Chicago, and your sister and her husband in New York…”
“I suppose so.” But Ray sounded unconvinced.
“No,” said Mrs Mottram firmly. “The whole trouble is that he isn’t Jewish. Why couldn’t she marry a nice Jewish boy? She had plenty to choose from.”
Shifra made no reply, only thinking wistfully that if the Mottrams had lived a proper Jewish life, so that the difference between Jews and non-Jews was too obvious to ignore, Joyce’s life might have turned out differently.
About Henye Meyer