The Heart and Stone of a Garden


Several years ago, when my husband and I first set eyes on this dear old house of ours, what beguiled us was not the place as it then was, but the promise of what it might one day become. Peeling paint, rotting trim; clogged, sagging gutters, and a basement so damp that the circuit breakers had rusted solid. The chronically overworked sump pump had burned out long since. Muddy groundwater stood in pools here and there on the bare, uneven granite floor, and a family of salamanders had taken up residence in the crawl space under the kitchen floor. We had to be both poor and crazy to buy the house, and luckily for the realtor who was handling the sale, we were both.

If the house itself was, as they say in the breezy, euphemistic jargon of the trade, “in need of some work,” the yard was almost beyond help. Poison ivy had wormed its way between the creaky boards of the deck and was hungrily clambering up the side of the house. An enormous, funereal spruce tree stood at the very center of the awkward, pie-shaped lot, dominating the view from every window of the house. There was grass here and there, but it was poor, thin stuff. A few hostas languished miserably in the hot summer sun, their thirst palpable, their limp, jaundiced leaves an eloquent reproach. The only thing of beauty anywhere on the lot was a large, almost perfectly triangular chunk of granite, which lay half-hidden under one corner of the dilapidated deck.

For a long time I wasn’t sure exactly how I could use that wonderful piece of natural sculpture—or even whether moving it from its resting place was a wise idea at all. It seemed highly probable, given the general decrepitude of the house, that moving such a huge stone out from close to the foundation might create a whole host of other problems. The deck might give way; the ell at the back of the house might subside. Perhaps it would be best to let sleeping stones lie.

Nevertheless, that piece of granite continued to fret away at my imagination. Like the man who found a button in the street and had a suit tailor-made to match, I designed hypothetical garden rooms around the stone, visualizing it here, or here; as a table, perhaps, or a bench. Meanwhile, I set about the formidable task of beating back the undergrowth and reclaiming our land.

There is much, it seems to me, in the process of garden-making which resembles that of writing, not least the solitary, arduous and often exasperatingly slow nature of the work. A good garden, like a good book, must have a leitmotif, a purpose, a structure: mere decorativeness is not enough. For six years I wrestled with that rampaging undergrowth, hacking and chopping, digging and delving, trying to open it up, to reveal the true shape of my putative garden. Gone was the gaunt and funereal spruce tree, the treacherous tangle of poison ivy, the wild and predatory euonymus which had engulfed everything in its path. Gone were the hundreds of spindly, sun-starved sapling maples, the briars, the poor, thin grass. The pathetic, roasted hostas sighed gratefully in the cool, dark corner to which I had moved them. For three seasons each year I toiled away, oblivious to everything except the business of harnessing that land, persuading Mother Nature to cede me a garden, inch by inch.

And during the fourth season, the cold, dark winter, I would pace the floors with impatience, making lists of jobs to be done, seeds to be sown and plants to be sought out once spring arrived and I could be back outdoors again. And always, in all seasons, at the back of my mind was the thought of that wonderful triangular stone, the stone sleeping soundly under the corner of the deck, the stone which had yet to meet its calling.

Then in the spring of the seventh year came a heavy, wet April snowstorm, and the overburdened deck groaned loudly and gave way, tearing free of the side of the house, the boards splintered, the joists rotten. And there, beneath the wreckage, lay my stone, freed of its load at last, a perfect equilateral triangle, larger and more splendid than I had ever dared to imagine.

It took four of us to move it, but bit by bit the majestic stone trundled slowly across the yard on its rollers towards its new home. All that remained was for the stonemason to come and complete the installation by setting in place the three smaller triangular pieces of granite which he had cut to fit accurately, one against each side of the parent triangle’s three even sides.

I can see it now, as I look down from my window. The centerpiece of the landscape, the focus, the heart, the story of both my garden and, in the truest sense, my self: a perfect Magen David (Star of David), triumphant and powerful. I’m just a little too far away to inscription on its ancient, weathered surface, but I know by heart what it says:

In memory of my grandparents, Roman and Fenya Lubetkin, who were murdered by the Nazis in 1942.

And then, in Hebrew script beneath

Am Yisrael Chai —The Nation of Israel Lives.

Louise Kehoe wrote this article for Jewish Family & Life! Ms. Kehoe is the author of In this Dark House for which she won a National Jewish Book Award.

Recommended from JTA