During the last couple of weeks I’ve had a taste of what so many of you have endured for the last five months — being entirely on my own. Troy and Victoria were away becoming newly wed, while my “pand-ami” Eric, after 10 days of hiking in the Adirondacks and a brief few days back here, returned to New York City.
In some ways, the solitude supercharged my productivity. Without accommodating myself to anyone else’s schedule, I could do what I wanted whenever and for however long I was driven to do it. It gave me a certain sense of satisfaction. I planted most of what I still wanted to get in the garden: the last succession plantings of cilantro, dill, broccoli, beets, turnips, carrots and radishes, but also those vegetables that are uniquely suited to August planting for a fall crop: a second wave of sugar snap peas, and collard greens, escarole and spinach. I still plan on putting in a next wave of lettuce and a bed of tatsoi. If I get that done tomorrow I feel like I will be much prouder of my fall garden than my summer one, where the tomatoes are just getting around to fruiting and the pepper plants are only now of a size where they can support peppers. My late plantings and insufficient time spent on fencing have made me feel like I’ve done a better job of feeding the critters than I have myself.
But with solitude comes being lost in one’s thoughts. During those initial days of solitude, one dismaying thought that crossed my mind and got stuck there was that I might be turning into my paternal grandmother, Eva Scherzer. What brought her so strongly to mind was that she spent her later years largely in solitude, particularly in the summer months at her big old Victorian house at the top of Main Street in East Branch, New York, a tiny hamlet near a source of the Delaware River.
As far as I could determine, Grandma Eva spent her time there almost entirely gardening and reading. She did not drive, and depended on kind hearted neighbors to get her groceries and supply her with fresh produce. Save for very occasional visits from my family that would last an hour or two before we returned to the borscht belt bungalow colony an hour east of there where we spent our summers, she seldom had visitors. I hated those visits, particularly when I was very young. In stark contrast to my maternal grandmother, Sonia, Eva was a terrible cook whose only decent company dish was sweet cucumber salad. Her kitchen was a chaotic, dirty, mess, and the house was falling down around her.
Challenges notwithstanding, Grandma Eva kept returning to that house alone for months on end for years after she could reasonably look after herself. Could this, I wondered, be my future?
At some level, I’ve always feared turning into Grandma Eva. For one thing, I believe I bear a strong physical resemblance to her (as did my father). For another, she was incredibly self-absorbed and given to self pity. She would immediately tell strangers the tragic story of her life, how she lost everything in World War II: from the fashion atelier she and my grandfather owned in Vienna to her eldest son, the light of her life, who died in battle in the Phillipines. She was no Joe Biden, turning her loss into empathy for others. Forty years later she would burst into tears publicly over her son’s tragic death. Peter always made fun of my similar proclivity to bemoan my fate (“Why me?”). Eva was far more justified than me in feeling that her life resembled the tribulations of Job. But as repelled as I was by her public dwelling on her life’s challenges, I was drawn inexorably to share that trait.
Of course, Grandma Eva was a complex woman who had many admirable traits as well, though it was not until I was at least of college age that I began to appreciate them. She was an intellectual who respected the life of the mind. Family lore was that she was instrumental, in ways never explained to us, in helping to save Thomas Mann’s papers. She was my only champion in the family when I decided to go to graduate school rather than law school — and then the only disappointed one when I abandoned anthropology for a law degree that she, a communist in her younger life, saw as constituting dirty commerce.
She was also resourceful. The 1938 German annexation of Austria (the Anschluss) happened as she was bringing her infant daughter, my father’s younger sister, to visit family in her native town Busc (now western Ukraine, then the Polish part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Using her Austrian passport and what few valuables she had with her, she made her way with her daughter across Russia, thence to Yokohama, and from there via San Francisco to Brooklyn before the war broke out. Later in life, her ability to soak up life’s experience on a budget was evident when she came to London, where my family was then living, for my bar mitzvah. She deposited her ailing husband with us, bought a Eurailpass, and criss-crossed the Continent on her own for a month with a couple of changes of clothes, taking overnight trains virtually everywhere to avoid paying hotel bills.
Even when as a young adult I came to appreciate her values and resilience, I can’t say that I understood Grandma Eva’s devotion to her house in the Catskills. I couldn’t imagine what she got from an existence that seemed to consist chiefly of living alone, nurturing her peonies and reading on the front porch.
But now I think I get it. Taking care of the plant life around the house was her way of being grounded in the universe while she otherwise lived in her mind. And doing it so resolutely on her own, with occasional help from kind neighbors, was her affirmation of a capacity to control her own destiny, even as the universe seemed to conspire against that autonomy.
I suppose I could do worse than become Grandma Eva.
WHAT’S NEW THIS WEEK:
LAMB is back. Legs of lamb and loin chops, $14/lb, boneless lamb shoulder, $10/lb, Ground lamb, $7/lb. For the Central Asians among you, lamb tails, $5/lb.
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK
Large black Spanish Radishes, $2 each
Fennel, larger bulbs now, $2 each
Blackberries – the last ones $6/pint
Green shiso leaves $1, pack of 10
Kale, (curly leaf or lacinato) $2/bunch
Swiss Chard, $3/bag
Fresh dug horseradish root, $3/lb.
Sorrel, one gallon bag, $3/bag
Mint, $1/ bunch
Garlic chives (the flat kind), $1/bunch
Dill and lettuce back soon
MEATS: Have been largely cleaned out during the supermarket shortages of this spring. What is still in stock:
LAMB: fresh back from processing, Legs of lamb and loin chops, $14/lb, boneless lamb shoulder, $10/lb, Ground lamb, $7/lb. For the Central Asians among you, lamb tails, $5/lb.
PORK: fresh ham roasts (2 to 3 lbs), $12/lb
Chickens will be available again at the end of summer (September 15), additional lamb shortly
Email us your order at email@example.com, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.