Ma thought it was a good idea. That we work together in the garden. But it wasn’t a garden then, just a long rectangle of funky-smelling earth behind a two-story apartment house in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. An elderly couple named Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz owned the house and backyard. This was in the early seventies, and already the Jews were moving out. I was ten or twelve the summer we worked in the earth. The Schwartzes lived downstairs from us in that house, and on Fridays their apartment went semidark because of the Sabbath. What a beautiful word for something I didn’t know anything about. Then, one day, I saw the tattooed numbers on Mrs. Schwartz’s arm and in a flash everything I’d learned in school flooded my mind and heart: all those bodies laid to waste, gold teeth extracted and made into something else, the gas chambers and the musicians who played as the walking dead stood naked, hoping for water, hoping to be cleaned.
And there was more. There is always more pain and beauty. Recently, a friend told me about the gardens Jews kept for Nazi families who wanted something beautiful to look at while they smelled death at work, had schnapps and what all outside, the condemned Jews not lifting their heads as they worked the earth and tended flowers, such beautiful living organisms thriving on a plantation where murder was grown and harvested. And I think of Mrs. Schwartz now as I think about the earth behind our house—her house—and the numbers blooming on her arm like flowers. I never got to ask her how old she was when she was marked like that, and did she remember or see barbed wire fencing the condemned in like the wiring around flower beds and vegetable beds our innocent neighbors used to keep predators out? Nor did I get to say to her, even as those numbers on her arm blossom and die in my memory, What is it about flowers that no matter where they’re grown—in death camps or by the sea, in private homes or on the border of war zones—why is it they keep on flowering while insisting on their right to inspire feelings in us that we can barely know, or articulate in all our truth and terribleness?
When I think about the Schwartzes, I think about their building, our home, and I think about the steep staircase leading up from the street to our apartment, and the long shape of our apartment itself, and the fact that we lived next door to a gas station where fumes bloomed. This is the only apartment I have vivid memories of—we moved a fair amount when I was a kid—and part of what I remember about it is the garden or, more accurately, how the garden came to be.
It wasn’t anything but overly fertilized rust-colored dirt when Ma said she thought something could grow there. She was always trying to make a family, and to make that family grow. But there was so much bad earth. Our father didn’t live with us; for most of the time I knew him, he lived with his mother, in Crown Heights, a bus ride away. It had always been this way. My parents visited, and on weekends out my father took me and my little brother on long walks around the city. We saw the beautiful consumerist goods on Madison Avenue, and, in the Village, heard women catcalling to passersby from the Women’s House of Detention. Rainy days in Chinatown, and some snowy days at the Guggenheim Museum, or looking at the precipitation falling on the stone lions at the New York Public Library. And then there was my father’s hand, or, more accurately, certainly from an emotional point of view, my hand in his tougher rougher bigger hand and it was the best foreign feeling in the world: I knew his hand but not him, and even now that feels like defeat, my remembering the pleasure of my hand in his, and all that I wanted from him that wasn’t forthcoming. My dreams of him were always tied up with things ending—at the end of our Saturdays together, he took a gypsy cab home—and so with a kind of death. On some level I must have wanted him to stay even though I couldn’t stand him, or stand him leaving. In any case, I can’t believe these memories continue to make me vulnerable to him, the way flowers are to our human hands—cut them or leave them alone? Water them or let nature take care of them? The flowers are vulnerable to us!—and remind me that all I want to do is find my father again, but in a better person, a he who will protect me from the original father who maybe taught us how to cultivate flowers, but certainly not how to find soul-nourishing love when it’s needed, which is always.
I don’t remember when my mother suggested growing flowers. But for sure her impulse was in part inspired by her desire to keep looking for activities that prompted and encouraged our father to be a father to his sons. That was part of what mediocre therapists might call their dynamic—her hope and his pulling back, her cajoling him and telling him what he must do, and him doing it sometimes, but always grudgingly. Daddy was Ma’s only real baby, or the only one who was allowed to be a baby. I remember her saying she would ask the Schwartzes about the land, and I remember my father standing with me at the Schwartzes’ door soon thereafter, and the deeply kind Mr. Schwartz telling my father that the dirt back there had been overly fertilized by someone a long time before, and it had been left untended after that. In my memory or my imagination, which is usually the same thing, my father says to Mr. Schwartz, I’ll take care of it. Or perhaps it was my mother who asked the Schwartzes about the ground, then decided we would make the best of it. Because that’s what she always did. And maybe what I wanted my father to do.
To get to the backyard, you had to go through a dank dark cellar. Once done, you were standing at the border of that filthy, rank-smelling earth. It was always cold in the basement; it was like someone’s idea of death. I wonder what flowers grow in the cold; flowers commemorate death, we know that, but I wonder what buds in the cold, or in the bad earth. I don’t know anything about flowers even though flowers will bury me in the end.
Mr. Schwartz didn’t lie: the earth in the backyard was bad, and it stank of neglect. But my mother was determined that we make something of it—a place for flowers—and I don’t think her wish had anything to do with reality; are wishes even part of what’s possible; reality didn’t apply to my mother’s wish that my father be a father. I was probably the same about flowers, meaning in my mind they were one thing and I hoped they’d be another. I had an interest in flowers but not in growing them. That is, I loved seeing bouquets of love in a given movie protagonist’s arms—Ginger Rogers, say; she was always starring in movies, in the forties in particular, where some guy was always giving her flowers after a fight or an unexpected reconciliation—but what did that have to do with now, and me and my little brother making rows and holes and then watering what we couldn’t see growing in the earth, let alone admit to in our hearts? Were flowers only for white people in the movies? We put things in the ground and hoped for some kind of best, but where was the best, and with whom? Once flowers began to grow—would that be proof of my brother’s dedication and diligence? Or mine?
But before all that—before we could plant anything we had to clear the area of bottles, cans, and other debris that people had chucked in earth that wasn’t even ours. Junk stood in the brown with hints of red soil like urban flowers, and as we collected that trash and threw it into big plastic bags, I felt the nausea I have always felt when looking out, or handling waste: wasted. As if all the hours of the day are bullshit and all the love you wanted to have for Daddy was a joke, and always would be, and all the love you could hope for was emptying to the soul as picking up after someone else’s carelessness in a yard God had apparently forsaken.
But not Ma. She wouldn’t forsake her dreams of a garden, which is to say a family. But could flowers bring us together? As my brother and I planted seeds, Daddy sat away from us, doing what he mostly did when we were together: he read the newspaper, or the Racing Form. After he showed us—from a distance—how to make rows, and water and plant, he appeared to be as interested in us creating flowers together as those people who had dropped empty Coke and beer bottles in our earth. Ma wanted to make a garden—something that lasts—in a rental situation. That just occurred to me—we didn’t own the earth we were working. And yet, despite that fact, Ma wanted the last event of flowers to be ours. I have spent most of my life thinking about how she flowered with such hope despite the facts. When I told someone I know a little bit about the scene—my father reading the Racing Form while me and my brother were out there—he said, Like an overseer? I was startled by his remark. Was it all so obvious, so “political”: working land that wasn’t ours, Daddy as the overseer, my little brother and I were indentured to some idea of Daddy, that if we got the garden right, he would get us. And, once gotten or understood, he would pick us up like bouquets made up of beautiful blooms that defied the smell of our sad hopeful flesh in his presence. (We burned in his presence, burned, and burned.) And after cradling us as tenderly as Ginger Rogers cradled her flowers, he would hand his boy bouquet over to our Ma. Standing there, holding us all, she was finally buried in the blooming family she always longed for, and we were no longer a dream, but as real as a garden that didn’t belong to any of us, but what did that matter when there was so much hope and so many flowers just around the corner?
Hilton Als began contributing to The New Yorker in 1989, writing pieces for Talk of the Town. He became a staff writer in 1994, a theater critic in 2002, and chief theater critic in 2013. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, a George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, the American Academy’s Berlin Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his work at The New Yorker in 2017. He is the author of the critically acclaimed White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of a Lambda Literary Award in 2014. A professor at Columbia University’s writing program, he lives in New York City. Read his Art of the Essay interview.
Excerpted from (Nothing but) Flowers, published by Karma Books, New York, later this spring, reprinted by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.