My Mother’s Garden



Brooklyn Heights, New York, New York, 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

The author’s childhood home in Greenwich. (Photo by Alexis Rockman)

Even after we all were married, with children of our own, my siblings and I would celebrate Mother’s Day in Greenwich. If the weather was good, we ate sandwiches with our mother and father on the porch, watching our children run together, and split apart, calling, screeching, and laughing as we once had, all around the big yard. If it was rainy the adults ate inside, where the many bay windows framed one child slipping in mud, others scrambling up the front rocks, and still others sitting in contemplative circles by the old stone well. Sometimes, watching, I would rush out to join my sons Alex and Ferran under my favorite tree, a huge copper beech, whose trunk looked like the leg of a giant elephant.

Then, within the space of a few years, my mother died, my husband and I separated, my father remarried, and he and his new wife sold the house where my siblings and I–and all of our children—had celebrated Mother’s Day for most of our lives.

Without a place for all of us to descend, my siblings and I drifted apart. Mother’s Day became a source of solitary worry more than group celebration. For several years I tried to remind myself that now I was a free woman. I could re-invent Mother’s Day according to my own desires and wishes. This proved extremely difficult. Then more recently, any freedom I may eventually have relished stood at odds with the entertainment suggestions (faced a cultural showdown with) of my 14-year old son, Alex, whose idea of a fun Mother’s Day activity was to go see the movie “300.”

If it’s sunny, I told Alex, I want to go to the Brooklyn Botanic gardens. If it rains, I said, I might agree to a movie—but not “300”.

“How about ‘The Invisible?’” was Alex’s come back. He was sitting at his desk, Googling shantytowns in Sao Paolo.

“Yeah, ‘The Invisible!’” said Ferran, 11, who was feeding his bearded dragons their daily portion of live crickets.

My boyfriend, Alexis, slid his forefinger repeatedly across his neck, his eyes wide, as if to say,

“Trust me.” “It’s supposed to be sunny,” he said.

On Mother’s Day morning, my sons gave me presents from our neighborhood independent bookstore. I appreciated their altruism. Whenever I suggested going there, they moaned and forced a follow-up purchase of the latest “Worst Case Scenario” at a nearby chain bookstore.

“You guys are so thoughtful,” I said, laughing, turning over a book that had reminded Ferran of the book I was reading–about child soldiers in Africa—and a recently re-issued book about England during World War II, a pet subject of Alex’s.

“Did you get Mom a present?” Ferran pointedly asked my boyfriend.

“I’m about to,” said Alexis, who returned, ten minutes, later with the fixings for huevos rancheros and a bouquet of pink lilies.

Since the weather was sunny and warm, we decided to eat in our garden. Ferran was connecting his iPod to speakers, when I walked up the steps. “Bang bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on her head,” sang the Beatles. “Papa used to sing this to Mimi,” I told Ferran. Papa and Mimi were what the boys’ called my parents. “Mimi’s name was Joan,” I said, “like the girl in that song.”

“Did Papa hit Mimi with a hammer?” Ferran asked.

“He pretended to,” I chuckled, explaining how we used to spend Saturday nights dancing to the Beatles in the living room. During ‘Octopus’ Garden,’ I told him, my brothers and I would compete for a twirl from one of my mother’s wriggling octopus tentacles.

“I’ll dance with you.” Ferran looked expectant.

“When I finish my eggs,” I said, suddenly alarmed by the prospect of wriggling my pretend tentacles in broad daylight, in front of all our neighbors.

Ferran and I danced. But when the benign gurglings of an octopus had gone the way of the monotonous and more urgent, “I want you,” we both felt self-conscious. So we dispersed inside to find Alex at his desk, Googling skyscrapers in Buenos Aires.

Half an hour later, on a Number 2 train bound for Brooklyn, I began to feel a flicker of easy well-being that had so eluded me on recent Mother’s Days. The train was passing its first Brooklyn exit: Clark Street, when it occurred to me: I had lived in Brooklyn Heights until I was five. Then, seeking a bigger yard for us to play in, and free schools, my parents had moved my brothers and me to Greenwich (my sister was not yet born).

“Maybe after the Botanical Gardens,” I suggested, “we could wander around Brooklyn Heights.”

There were assorted nods and shrugs. The train was approaching Borough Hall, which was right near Livingston Street. “We could visit the house, where we my brothers and I lived when my parents were first married,” I suggested. Again Alexis and the boys nodded. But this time, within seconds, the four of us had jumped the train and were headed out to Court Street.

My former brick home on Livingston Street was now painted yellow, with cheerful flowerboxes out front. Frail sticks of wood supported the rippled glass windowpanes. “I bet they’re the same windows I used to look out of,” I said. “They look old, don’t they?”

“They look old all right,” said Alex.

A half-flight below us, what used to be a shiny red door was now an even shinier black.

Alex was skeptical that a stranger would let us in, but I felt pretty confident. We descended the steps and rang the bottom buzzer. There was no answer. We rang again.

“You mean to tell me,” said Alex, “that if someone came to our house, and said they used to live there, you’d let them in?”

“I absolutely would”, I said.

Alex cocked his head, as if deciding which issue of “Worst Case Scenario” would most likely address this.

We tried the second buzzer, and the third.

My pink rubber ball was stolen, I told the boys, one time when I’d left it out on the sidewalk during dinner.

“Someone stole your ball?” said Alex, indignantly.

“Well, if she left it on the street,” said Ferran.

This was in the mid-to-late 1960’s, I explained, when the neighborhood surrounding Livingston Street was gentrifying.

“Then the day before we moved, we bought a station wagon, and parked it on the street. The next morning, when Papa went to load it, someone had spray painted it white.

Nobody was home at 44, but through the basement window next door, a woman frowned. I didn’t ask her to help us.

We were approaching the corner of Livingston and Henry, when an old man rushed passed us carrying a bouquet of purple lilacs. Something about the flowers in his arms, and the determined tilt of his body, suggested he was nearing home. He descended steps to the house next door to my old house. His key was turning in the door, when I rushed up to him and said, “Excuse me.” I breathlessly explained who we were and asked if we could look out back at our old garden.

The old man hesitated. “My wife is in a wheelchair,” he said. He would need to ask her permission. Watching him slowly disappear inside, I felt almost certain he’d never return. I was contemplating a reprieve to the less fraught botanical gardens, when he old man re-emerged, waving us in.

His wife was the woman we’d seen frowning. She nodded perfunctorily, when the old man introduced us. A TV hung above the window. She was watching the news.

We followed the old man through his small kitchen, where the purple lilacs still laid bundled on the counter. Out in the garden, a black wrought-iron fence divided his property from what had once been mine. I used to squeeze through the fence to visit a neighbor my age. Now, the fence had a gate.

“You can go on in,” said the old man, who looked rather jaunty, in his beret. “The owner’s my friend. She won’t mind.”

The yard was much smaller than I remembered. A tall tree to the side, looked like the one we’d draped with a tire swing. A carefully tended English garden had replaced our modest rectangle of lawn.

When I told the man this, he removed his beret, and began scratching his balding head. “I used to have grass, too,” he said. “We all did. But it was such a pain to keep up.”

“The flowers are beautiful.”

“She works very hard at it.”

The steps that led down to a back patio were paved with bluestone.

“I ate yodels on those steps,” I told the boys. “I wore a nurse’s costume on my birthday. There are pictures at home. I’ll show them to you.”

“I’d like to see you in a nurse’s costume,” murmured Alexis.

I told them about the crabapple tree where dressed as pirates, my brothers and I had dug as far as we could, in hope of finding gold or China.

Alex raised his eyebrows. “That’s interesting, Mom,” he said, in a deadpan voice.

Ferran nodded, stroking an imaginary goatee. “Yeah, uh, Mom, that’s truly fascinating.”

Alexis clapped his hand to his mouth and pointed to Ferran laughing. Then Ferran started play punching him. They both laughed and pointed at each other.

The old man smiled at Alexis, a grown man, goofing around with an eleven year old.

“Teenagers,” I said.

After wishing his wife a Happy Mother’s Day, we headed over toward the Promenade, where mothers and daughters everywhere appeared laughing and talking. Eventually we found a bench in the sun looking out over the East River. A barge moored below boasted a big outdoor swimming pool. Alex suggested we walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Neither Alex nor Ferran had ever crossed the bridge on foot. Alexis, who grew up in Manhattan, had never crossed it in this direction. My father had worked on Wall Street, so I had crossed it as a very young child, with my parents. But now I was with my new family. It seemed an important moment in history.

“Come on, Mom,” urged Alex. “It’ll be an adventure.” Directing us inland, since “bridges often start pretty far inland,” Alex led us to a footpath, and, eventually, among the low-rise buildings, we found a ramp leading to the bridge’s pedestrian walkway.

Walking against the Brooklyn-bound foot traffic, we kept dodging the rush of oncoming pedestrians. Their exodus from Manhattan reminded me of the day JFK was shot. I was still a baby, but my father, who then worked on Wall Street, once told me how, after the news came across the ticker tape, and the stock market closed early, he and his colleagues had remained at work, trying to fathom the effect of the President’s assassination on their stocks. For a while they all felt paralyzed. Then, all at once, with their shirts unbuttoned, their ties yanked loose, he and countless others had trekked across the Brooklyn Bridge, returning home to safety.

More recently, of course, on 9-11, the bridge witnessed a similar historic exodus.

Cars rushed past on both sides of us. “Look down,” Alex cried. Through the gaps in the wooden slats we saw the steely East River rushing below us. “What if one of the strips of wood broke?” he said. Then, laughing, he and Ferran dramatized this worst-case scenario, wobbling and shrieking, with flailing arms, as they pretended to fall to their deaths.

We never made it to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, but later, in a taxi, I spotted a man rushing down the street with flowers. “Mother’s Day is like Valentine’s,” I laughed. “You always see all of these men racing frantically, with flowers.”

I would always miss the yard in Greenwich, and, of course, my mother. But it was reassuring to know that, in their absence, I could enjoy a Mother’s Day, which, perhaps for the first time in my life, had begun, and ended, with me.

Dorothy Spears is a New York-based writer and arts journalist. Her anthology, Flight Patterns: A Century of Stories About Flying, will be published this June by Open City Books.

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