The German Gardener

February 2, 2009

After 93 years, the first 53 of which passed before my birth, and for the last 2 of which it seemed simply inappropriate, I finally invited Gerta the German gardener to come to our house.

In the summer when I had taken Spot on his daily afternoon walks to Where the Sidewalk Ends, we would see 93-year old Gerta working in her garden along the railroad tracks. Then winter came, and the snows, and the record-breaking cold, and even though she lived in a tall brick building across the street we did not see her for weeks and I often wondered if I would see her again when the snow was gone.


Gerta was leaning on a 5 foot long white aluminum cane when I met her at the door in January, something she said she had found in the trash a few days ago and had since proven quite useful in keeping her balance.

For Spot she had a bag of treats that included the uneaten remainders of a box of imported gingerbread cookies, and a month-old copy of the zoo newsletter.

“I want him to learn to love nature,” she said as she handed me the magazine.

Gerta was brave to come. The cupcakes we made for her immediately gave her gastric reflux, a leaky, fizzing cadenza that played beneath her speech, as if the bubbles bursting at the surface of a soft drink when you put your ear to the glass were moderately amplified.

Half-way through her cupcake, Gerta was singing, a gaseous hum powering her conversation as it angled from one direction to another. Now she was leaving Germany, she told her parents, whether they liked it or not, and so off she went to Great Britain, and from there on board a steamer for America, only a day’s reach from the shore of England in September, 1939, when her purse was thrown from her arm and into the water of the North Atlantic by the force of the German torpedo that exploded to the starboard side of the boat.

Spot’s mom brought him down a few moments later, after the rescue by British destroyers, and as he sat rebooting in his mother’s lap, I’m reminded of those graphs of cosmological time, the ones that begin with the cooling of the planet earth, and are followed after an interval of several feet by the first organic molecules several billions of years later, and then a three-quarter inch stretch representing the age of the dinosaurs, and then, occupying only a sliver of space on the chart at the very tip, the emergence of Homo Sapiens and the entirety of modern history.

Spot gazed at Gerta the German gardener with a glimmer of recognition. “Do you remember Gerta? Gerta from the garden,where the sidewalk ends?” Spot, smaller than the thinnest line on the cosmological graph does indeed, and smiles. The time he has been alive is probably less than the time Gerta has spent napping, looking for keys, and taking the bus.


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