I’m walking the boys down the street just before 9 0’clock in the morning. We’re rushing to get to summer camp when we pass a planter on the corner filled with soaring green stalks sprouting cheerful blossoms that are a delightful watermelon pink. They are gorgeous and at least 6 feet tall, and when I see them I exclaim, “Look at those amazing, tall pink flowers guys! I think that they might be honeysuckle!”
Both of my boys stop to admire the flowers and Jack says sadly, “Be careful! Don’t smell them! Because remember, one time, when by accident, we smelled that mean lady’s flowers?”
And all over again I have angry knots in my stomach and I want to kick my obnoxious neighbor in the teeth for ruining what used to be one of the most lovely parts of my day and suffusing, what was a sweet, calm ritual of exploration and discovery, with anxiety, mistrust, and fear.
This is for you Ridiculously Rude Resident of Rutland Road.
My kids can’t get you and your aggressive incivility out of their heads.
And it is because of you that my little boys
fear to stop and smell the roses.
Thanks a lot.
Hope you’re happy.
We live in a large apartment building right on the border of a land-marked Brooklyn neighborhood that is filled with gorgeous brownstones and free-standing houses. It is common for people in our neighborhood to have things that are uncommon elsewhere in New York City, like backyards, generous front stoops, and lovely front gardens.
Every morning when Jack and I are walking Zeke to school we wander past all of these houses and blissfully examine the beautiful new things that are growing. The three of us celebrated the coming of spring by noticing the appearance of precious little purple crocuses in so many of our neighbors’ gardens. It delighted me when my boys would point out clusters of “Happy Daffodils” or point excitedly to a vibrant yellow-blossomed bush and shout, “Look Mom! It’s forsythia! Your favorite!” We were sometimes a little late for school because the three of us had lingered too long, noses clustered together around a planting of rich indigo hyacinth, deeply inhaling their fresh, heavenly scent.
I would ache with love for Zeke when he would crouch down inquiringly before a patch of flowers, cock his head, and ask, “Are these pansies?”
And when Jack would tell me that he wanted to turn on Rogers Avenue so that we could pass by the house with the “bunches of Bleeding Hearts“, I would have to summon everything that I had inside of me not to grab his little face and smother him with kisses.
I love our morning walks, softly lit, before the sun is strong.
I love this little opportunity to delight in gracefully growing things, right here, in the middle of Brooklyn, especially when we live in a big brick building that smells more of piss and weed than it does of Lilies of the Valley.
One morning, in early June, we were taking our walk as usual. It had rained overnight and all of the plants were still moist from the light summer drizzle. The air was cool and soft. Zeke, Jack and I were admiring the way that the damp grey of the morning made the colors of the plants vivid and the way that the flowers almost sparkled when light would bounce off of a raindrop on a petal.
We turned onto Rutland Road and all three of our pairs of eyes seemed to settle on the planter at once. It was a barrel planter on the sidewalk with a small, rather spindly, rosebush inside of it, but the few roses on the bush were immaculate. The blossoms were wide and fully blooming, a striking vibrant coral.
“Those are beautiful Mom! What are they called?” Zeke asked.
“They’re roses, Sweetie,” I said. “And roses are so special because they smell absolutely amazing! Should we sniff them?”
Both boys nodded eagerly. And in our own little bubble of happy family warmth, we wandered over to the planter and leaned our noses towards the flowers, when we were jolted out of the pleasant mood by an angry shout,
“Aw Hell No! Get those kids the hell away from my flowers!”
A large, angry woman appeared at the door of the house, a phone at her ear. I was startled, but I managed to say, “Oh I’m sorry ma’am. We were just smelling them. I always tell my boys to be very gentle and not to touch.”
She continued to glare at us with profound hostility.
“Whatever. Just move on. Stop trespassing.”
I started to get really angry but I saw my children’s eyes growing wide with concern and I wanted to defuse the situation, but also to reassure them that we hadn’t done anything wrong.
I spoke up a little more forcefully, “We are not trespassing. We are on the sidewalk.”
Her lip curled as she snarled, “Stop talking! Move on and stop trespassing before I call the cops and have you arrested.”
I knew that this was ridiculous. We were standing on the sidewalk. We hadn’t even touched her property, let alone damaged it in any way. But I could see how scared my kids, who are not used to harsh language from adults, were getting and I definitely didn’t want them to see me get into a pointless argument with some obnoxious stranger. So I ushered them along, and struggled to push down the knots of seething fury I felt stirring in my gut. I wanted to focus on seeming unfazed by the situation so that Jack and Zeke could just forget about it, but moments after we walked away, the questions started.
“Why didn’t she want us to smell her flowers Mom?”
Zeke gestured toward flowers planted in front of another house.
“Is it okay to smell those?
He added, “Did you hate that lady, Mom? I hated her. I hated her so much. I just ignored her and thought about how much I hated her and how much I wanted her to die.”
I realized that I needed to say something, to put some sort of label on what had happened so that it could make sense to my little guys and so that they would have an idea of how to feel about the situation.
“That lady was just really mean,” I said calmly. “It is never okay to be mean to people like that, or to speak to people like that. I don’t like her, but I don’t hate her. I don’t care about her at all. She was mean and the best thing for us to do was to just walk away.”
“Were you afraid?” Jack asked sweetly.
“No I wasn’t afraid. Were you?”
“No?” he said, without much confidence.
After we dropped Zeke off at school, I tried to proceed with our walk back home as if nothing unusual had happened. But at the first hydrangea that I tried to point out, Jack said nervously, “Are we going to walk by the mean lady’s house?”
“No,” I said. “She lived on Rutland Road. This is Midwood.”
“Were you scared of her, Mom?”
“No. Of course not honey. Were you?”
We walked on in silence. Inwardly I was cursing that woman for making it impossible to unselfconsciously enjoy our morning routine. Jack looked thoughtful as he walked.
We were almost home when he looked up at me and said, “Mom if we ever pass that mean lady again and she yells at us again, I am going to say something.”
I crouched down in front of him so that I could look into his eyes and I took both of his hands. “What would you say sweetie?”
Jack fixed his blue eyes on me seriously and spoke in a deep voice, that was clearly his childish imitation of his father when he’s frustrated by children that are acting wildly and/or irrationally:
“I would say,” he told me.
“That dog won’t hunt.”