Archive for September, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, I attended the inauguration of a garden at the Acton Memorial Library (in Massachusetts) in memory of my grandmother, Charlotte Sagoff.  Two years ago, at her memorial, I read a piece I wrote on the theme of a garden; how lovely that my very last sentence should have come to be true:

Charlotte and I joined the family the same year. In 1973, she married my grandfather, Maury Sagoff, and I was born.

My earliest memories of my US grandparents (my father’s family is from India) were predominantly of my grandfather. He was someone towards whom children gravitated. He was the one who was silly with me, who took me to his mysterious garage full of treasures, who deliberately left green beans hanging on the vines for me to pick after him so that I could tease him about what a bad green bean picker he was. He was the one with peanuts and M&Ms in his pockets, with stickers and made-up stories. He was the the one who splashed around in Walden Pond with me and my friend Sarah from across the street.

But in 1986, the summer that I turned 13, I began to understand what an important force Charlotte was. I had just spent a year living in India with my parents. Upon our return (to France, where were were based) my parents shipped me off to Acton, MA for a month while they tended to the practical business of finding us a new home. For six weeks I stayed with Grandpa and Charlotte, enjoying the peace and plentifulness of an American suburb after the chaos of a year in Bombay. And during that month, sleeping, waking, eating and going through the motions of day to day life in the same house as Charlotte, I came to realize that she was the voice of reason behind my grandfather’s follies, the practical counterweight to his impossibly impractical, if fun, ideas.

She was the one who had sat in the garden, on her little stool, planting the green beans for him to leave on the vine for me. She was the one who made the healthy meals to which the peanuts and M&Ms could be fun complements. She was the one who arranged for me to meet Sarah so that I could have someone my age to accompany us on our trips to Walden Pond. She was the one who made it all work: wise, reliable, down to earth.

And I mean down to earth quite literally. Many of my childhood and even more recent memories of Charlotte somehow involve earth, in one form or another. There was, for example, the somewhat frightening compost bowl on the kitchen counter in Acton, into which I was instructed to deposit any shred of leftover organic material. I remember the trepidation with which I would approach the bowl and scrape in the bits from my plate to join the fruit flies, decomposing peels, pits, and organic waste from the bottom of the sink.

There was the even more distressing compost heap behind the garage, where I had to confront a waist-high pile of who knows what, teeming with bees and crawling things.

There was Fort Pond, on which some friends of Charlotte and Grandpa’s had a house, and where they would take me swimming. My memories of that pond are mostly of the squishy bottom, murky and muddy, from which long grasses reached up to tickle my legs and turtles emerged, bug-eyed and bubbly.

There were Charlotte’s soups, wonderful creations of leftovers and leftovers of leftovers, cooked together into earthy, primordial melanges that were somehow delicious, as long as you didn’t think too much about what exactly was in there.

And of course there was her own vegetable garden: the planting, watering and harvesting; the delicious smell of fresh tomatoes in the sun; the green length of zucchini, crusted in some areas with a layer of dry dirt, lying quietly in the cool shade of their own leaves; the perilous picking of plump raspberries in the tumble of prickly bushes at the end of the garden.

In that garden, many things happened. I played away hours of childhood summers. I pressed apples into cider. I sat surrounded by close friends and relatives at a picnic the day before my wedding. I sat surrounded by close friends and relatives the day of Grandpa’s memorial.

When Charlotte moved into town, just a few blocks from where I live, she no longer had a garden. But she still cultivated people, made new friends in the neighborhood, connected people to each other. Even in the midst of her own transitions, she helped others make theirs. She helped people spread their roots when necessary, and lift them when necessary. During this time, I was able to visit often, much more often than when she’d lived in Acton. And I was able to bring my daughter to see her, and to bring her things from the farmer’s market. We continued this routine when she moved to a nearby rehab center. She was even more removed from any garden at that point, but she never stopped creating a nurturing environment. I believe everyone in this room is, in some way, a product of that. Charlotte may have left us, but we remain, all of us, in her garden.

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There’s no one quite like a five year old to showcase the potential of escalation. Take the following case:

Five year old K has started kindergarten. She likes her class; the head teacher is a “boy teacher” who is “cool and rides a motorcycle” and K has already made friends. With three years of preschool under her tiny belt, she is adept at saying goodby to Mom and Dad (already long gone are the days of Mommy and Daddy) and functioning in a social milieu on her own. But the after school program poses more of a problem. It is no longer the coddling environment of four and five year olds with a 1:3 adult to child ratio, where clear and rehearsed rules govern every form of interaction and activity. The after school program, for all the compliments about it that I heard from other parents, is more of a free for all. Children from kindergarten through sixth grade spend the afternoon from school dismissal, at 2:25, until their parent/sitter/guardian can pick them up. There are some structured activities, there are some adults, and there are two rooms—one for grades K through 2, and one for the older kids—but there’s also an atmosphere of rough and tumble, a long recess at the playground with all the children at once, and indoor “free play” which causes the decibel level to rise far beyond what is comfortable to the normal human ear. A pack of 6-7 year old boys and a bin of Transformers; need I say more?

K does not do rough and tumble. To my chagrin and concern, she’s the kid who gets knocked down by a bigger kid, usually a boy, usually unintentionally, and sits there and cries. And so on the third day of school, during outdoor play in the afternoon, she tripped/was knocked down (the reports are varied) while running and fell flat on her head, nose, hands and knees. And she howled. And howled. And howled. At 3:00 pm I receive the dreaded call from after school: please come pick up your child. When I get there, three minutes later because we live around the corner and I had been working from home, she is a complete mess. Wailing, covered in bandaids, inconsolable.

“I can’t walk” she cries hysterically when I take her by the hand to get her to stand up.

“Of course you can,” I say calmly. “Your legs are still there. You just got some scrapes.”

“Noooooo! I can’t!”

And so begins a litany of “I can’ts” and “I’m scareds.” I can’t bend my leg, I can’t go up the stairs, I’m afraid it will hurt, I’m afraid the bandaids will come off in the bath, I wish this had happened to someone else, I should have been wearing knee pads (seriously, she said this), I can’t get onto my bed, the blanket will hurt my knee, I can’t lie down, I won’t be able to sleep, I don’t like after school, I need to stay home, I don’t want to be five, and on and on. And I feel bad for her, but a large part of me wants to shake her by the shoulders and say Kid, take a breath, take control, be strong, dare to bend your leg and you’ll see it’s not that bad. I want to tell her, Be The People! Because that’s what it is. Don’t let the bigger kid who happened to tumble into you and knock you down get to decide, even unbeknownst to him, whether you like school or not. Don’t let a relatively minor booboo determine whether you are going to have a good day or not. She is so independent in other ways, so resilient to change and new things, and yet so easily knocked off balance by little things that hurt. Is this something I can teach her? Is this something that can be taught at all? I hope so.

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I like to rhyme. It’s in my genes. My grandfather was a poet, always ready with a witty couplet which made his children and grandchildren, and all those young and old who flocked to him, cringe and groan and ache with laughter all at once. To him my family traces the urge to compose a limerick upon hearing a silly name, to write an ode on the occasion of a birthday, to turn a simple request into a playful verse. As a child, at the dining table with my grandparents, I quickly learned to recognize the kinds of words or topics in conversation which would elicit a rhyme from my grandfather, and I would look toward him and watch the twinkle in his blue eyes and imagine I could hear the whir of his mind and I would await the parting of his lips and the delivery of the silly poem–for it was invariably silly–with such eagerness I would forget to eat. Luckily, my grandfather’s mind worked with lightning speed, so I never had to wait for long.

So the other day, as I procrastinated by poking around Facebook, I noticed that my cousin Jared had the following status update: “Full of fried clams!” (He was on Martha’s Vineyard at the time.) To which another cousin Curtis, Chair of an English Department, responded “Fax me some.” Well. The image of a faxed fried clam was too much to resist. I dropped what I was doing (probably working on my novel) and in a few minutes posted my own comment:

The junior professor
Knocked on Curtis’ door:
“First sheet of a fax–
I think there is more,
But the paper has jammed
And I’m told you’re the one
Who can solve any problem
Before it’s begun.
I checked on the toner
And Tray 1 and Tray 2
Can you think of anything
Else we can do?”
Said Curtis, who wished
For a moment of peace:
“Just call the technician
And what’s all that grease?”
“Oh that, on my fingers?”
Said the blundering prof,
“That came from the fax
And I can’t get it off!”
“From the fax? That’s for me?”
Asked Curtis, now keen
To walk down the hall
To the pesky machine.
He poked in his head
And peered around in it,
Saw the stain and then said
“Now wait just a minute!
Good thing that you called me,
For this isn’t a jam:
Someone has sent me-
My God! A fried clam!”

I post this not because I think it is a fine piece of poetry, but because of the joy I felt in writing it. How fun and liberating it was to spend fifteen minutes being silly and creative. I thought of the clam and the fax, and of course there had to be a paper jam, and I giggled, sitting in the café writing this, at the thought of an actual fried clam in a fax machine. And the comment had the added benefit of being the start to a string of comments in which the grandchildren reminisced about our grandfather and our childhoods punctuated with his verse. I felt nostalgic but light and peaceful after the whole exchange. And that was an excellent way to turn back to my work.

My grandfather was Maurice Sagoff, by the way. I highly recommend his book, Shrinklits. Seventy distillations of the classics, rendered in hilarious verse. If he were alive today, he would no doubt be writing the Twitter version.

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