Archive for September 29th, 2009

Charlotte

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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