by Orrin Konheim
One of my favorite childhood memories growing up in Arlington, Virginia was spending weekends at my grandparents’ house in the nearby town of McLean. My grandparents’ one-acre property was a rugged play-land of sorts. The property was surrounded by a forest to run around in that has since been stripped of its enchantment (and for that matter, most of its trees) by development. I only had an aesthetic appreciation back then for the way the trees were arranged in lines and how various ditches were built on the property without knowing that my grandfather, David, was devoted to growing trees and plants.
David and his wife moved to the United States in 1978 to reconnect with his daughter, my mother, and to help her raise me and my sister. He was in his early 60’s at the time, an immigrant many times over and a veteran of two wars. Because he had so many other languages in his head from all his past lives — Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew, and German — and he had come to the US so late in life, picking up English wasn’t easy for him. I spoke Hebrew as a toddler, but my entrance into kindergarten marked the beginning of a language barrier between us. I had to learn English and Spanish (we had a Nicaraguan nanny) and Hebrew went out the door.
As a result, I remember my grandfather today more through his actions than words. As someone who had been through his share of hardships, he could be difficult. He could be strict and got particularly grouchy at any deviations from his routine. Sometimes that grouchiness would be aimed at a little kid like me when I would do something like interrupt him during the news or “Wheel of Fortune.”
At the same time, he possessed a great capacity for joy, and there were simple little things that made him more joyful than I had seen in any man his age. He loved to listen to a pop tune on the radio (especially strange since he knew no English) and sing along. He relished pouring salt on his dinner, even though it was against his doctor’s wishes. One summer, he was my biggest fan when I conquered my fears (and my grandmother’s safety objections) by diving off a neighbor’s upper deck into the canal below.
I slowly came to appreciate, however, that my grandfather’s greatest sense of joy was of a quieter kind. He had briefly worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant when he immigrated to Virginia, but for most of his last 25 years he was retired, and he knew how to make himself useful, occupied, and happy, even when there was nothing for him to do but enjoy retirement. He would take to his daily tasks with a steady joy and purpose.
He enjoyed going for walks, reading books in his native language, fishing, and playing cards, but the centerpiece of his routine was the garden. It always bought a smile to his face.
Our lives overlapped for twenty years when my grandfather peacefully succumbed to a stroke in 2003 after several close calls. It wasn’t until a couple years after his passing that I discovered some old photo albums and saw pictures of a strapping young man in a military uniform that I began to really learn who he was.
My grandfather was born into a life of hardship in Mashhad, Iran as part of a Jewish community in strife. His family immigrated to Afghanistan for three years when he was eight years old, and he had to learn the Koran. But he was a Jew at heart and when he was 16 he set off for a land that would eventually become Israel. He was thrown in prison by the British government for illegal immigration and went through two wars, but he survived to help found Israel where my mom and her two siblings were born.
It was in Israel that he first tasted freedom and developed his love for agriculture.
Israel is known as “the land of milk and money,” a biblical reference to the agricultural abundance of the land. My grandfather’s love of agriculture was, therefore, part of a larger tradition, and after Israel’s independence, new immigrants were granted land by the government.
“He never studied,” recalls my Aunt Yardena. “But he knew what seeds to put and how to put the seeds. He knew what care he needed and whatever he planted, it was absolutely in abundance.”
My grandfather grew a garden wherever he went. He even had a rooftop garden over a cramped apartment in Frankfurt, Germany, before emigrating to the United States.
When I was ten, my grandparents moved to the Florida Keys, and one of his first orders of business was rebuilding his garden. He didn’t have as much land, but he turned what would have been a bed of pebbles on a canal-side property into a garden of pineapple trees, banana trees and more.
“Whatever [he] planted, if it was food or a fruit tree, it would grow,” recalls my Aunt Yardena. “And it could be in the hardest soil….He would just succeed in doing so.”
Nearly ten years after his death, his legacy lives on. His daughter Yardena maintains his garden in Florida, and my mom grows flowers in the summertime and brings them inside the winter.
“I find it very therapeutic,” says my mom. “It’s like raising children. It gives life.”
I find that I, too, enjoy watering my mom’s plants. It brings me a sense of steadiness and peace.
Orrin Konheim is a Virginia-based freelance writer, journalist in the Washington and Richmond markets, and public relations professional with interests in movies, television, the Olympics and local history. He blogs at http://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com. As a Featured Writer, he is willing to correspond with writers seeking advice on matters related to writing and publishing. Contact him at Okonheim@comcast.net.
Photo credit: V.van Gogh, Blooming garden with path. Photo. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 10 Mar 2016.