The Empty Garden

Way over on East 34th street near the FDR there is a lovely secret garden that is really too secret. You would never expect to find it there, under scaffolding, inside the foreboding boundaries of the Rusk Institute. And you won't much longer, as it's set to close. 

I don't know why it's not more popular. I myself have only been twice. Both times there were only a handful of children. This time it started to rain as soon as we arrived so the two kids who had been playing quickly went inside. Have most people just never heard of it? Is it the strange neighborhood? A bit too far from the subway on that cursed East side that only has one? Or could it be the idea of a therapeutic playground is something of a turn off, the air infected with sickness and disability, of fragile little boys like Colin in Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel* who must spend their lives inside, protected from daylight.

I tried to take pictures that would showcase the garden's beauty but wondered if I was being deceptive. At first glance there is definitely something sad and abandoned about the place and I don’t really know why that is. There must have been a gardener who cared a lot.** The flowers are all kept up beautifully. There’s a sandbox full of toys, a greenhouse with birds, little herb gardens, swings, a hammock. There’s a lawn with a plaque that begins: “In an urban environment with so much gray concrete, a green grassy carpet is inviting for children to climb, roll down, lie on, look at, feel and smell. . . It is cut with a hand mower with most of the clippings left to benefit the lawn. Nature prefers diversity with many types of plant life sharing a growing space.” They did everything right. It’s the kind of playground I would think those involved in Playwork—those groups like Alliance for Childhood and Play for Tomorrow who encourage imaginative, unstructured play--would celebrate.  True maybe there are not enough loose parts, maybe it’s a bit too safe since it’s largely wheelchair accessible. Maybe there are too many plastic toys. But it encourages imagination. It's full of little hideaways. It's a perfect place for children to learn and explore and create their own little worlds.

And yet, both times we've gone there seemed to be a gloomy feel. Last summer on our first visit Wally flitted from one thing to another, never accepting the gardener's invitation to dream and play. He always did that though, flitted around, therapeutic garden or not. I also made the mistake of not giving us enough time: 
I had to rush back to work during his nap. 

Alongside the ringing sound from the wind chimes was the ticking clock of Wally's approaching nap and the increasing likelihood that he'd fall asleep in the stroller on the way home. That meant he wouldn't nap for long and I wouldn't get any work done. Last year was so full of that tug of war. Freelance work and being a stay-at-home-mom. That doesn't mean you can't do both--work and be a good mom--but at the time, getting laid off and being given full-time care for a toddler, I had not figured out how to do it.  Trying to arrange the days so Wally could "climb, roll down, lie down (but only exactly when I needed him to), look at, feel and smell". In the meantime trying to keep up with my work and writing. Chase two rabbits and you won't catch either one.

I had seen the garden several times before I ever thought to bring Wally there to play. My grandmother Miriam spent a few weeks at the Rusk Institute recovering from a brain hemorrhage in the spring of 2008. Recovering is maybe the wrong word: while Wally was busy being born she was busy dying. Or maybe Dylan is right, there is no in-between. Yet she was someone who--at 93--hadn't until then spent anytime dying at all. 

But on those visits she marveled at the coy fish and the parrots. She had this childlike wonder over things that a month before would never have thrilled her nearly as much as a short line at Zabars. Even into her 90s as she'd gotten more anxious, she hadn't really changed that much. For so long she had us fooled. She made us think she would not die. She refused to leave the city. Refused to stop ploughing her wagon through Herald Square. She went to the doctor to figure out "what was going on" with her legs, why they hurt. The fact that she'd been racing around on them for 93 years did not offer any insight. On her last Thanksgiving she schlepped to Massachusetts in a tiny car with a pitbull, 2 Brazilians and a pregnant lady (me). Until a few years before she would have happily taken the bus. She was never tired, even minutes before her death (and I know this only from my father--he was the only one there with her) she was not ready to go. Edna St. Vincent Millay could have spoken for her: "Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./ I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."

It seemed improbable to be there in the spring of 2008, with a newborn who, if he wasn't sleeping, pushed hard against anyone trying to hold him, and a grandmother who'd been so strong and now felt like porcelain. The parrots and coy fish were comforting to both of us, even if the glass garden looked out on the empty playgarden and felt a bit like a cage. Lots of people--children too--must have spent hours (days, lifetimes) in that hushed damp glass room looking out the playgarden with its mint leaves, hanging trees and red wagon. Now Mike Mulligan's steam shovel is about to tear through it. Progress stops for no one, right?. No matter how lovely a place--or a life--wrecking balls are always ready to come swinging. We'd be wise not to dodge them, I guess. But even in the garden now I had to contend with those four people inside the glass garden then--people can die, but the past is never dead.*** One of those four is gone, another is unrecognizable compared to an earlier version, as happy as can be there, not flitting around at all, but happily playing in a light spring rain. 

What was the central dynamic there that transfixed me three years ago? There was my dad panicking over decisions about my grandmother's care. He was staggering, dazed, pushing around his mother turned child, accompanied by his child with her own baby, moving slowly through that greenhouse. I was guilty at the relief I felt --my grandmother was so much easier to be around, so much more peaceful, so appreciative. Or was it me--staggered and dazed at seeing my father staggering, seeing him in such a daze. Isn't that when--according to that idol of our youth, so much younger when he died than we are now--you're supposed to find God? Why couldn't Miriam find him? Why did she inherit this bloodline that left him out, that gave up on myths, on supernatural leaders, that never found him to begin with in that original garden where even then we were doomed with the threat of poisoned apples held out in such a tempting way? It would have been so much easier for her to leave and for my father to watch her go.

Back at those first visits to the glass garden she had not left yet and we were all these moving parts. Where would Miriam go? Would we live with her? Then where would Sky go? My parents too, were planning to move so she could live with them. In the end she never saw the house they bought essentially for her. We were all these loose parts, seeing things, as Anais Nin so brilliantly put, not as they are but as we are. Even the Elton John song, "Empty Garden", it's about John Lennon, but it never feels like it's about him to me. The empty garden, knocking on the door, hoping Johnny--a little boy, it has to be--will come out to play. 

Of course it's obvious--the playground wasn't a gloomy place. We see things as we are. And the songs that resonate the most are about whatever you're going through at the time. Then they get seared into that moment. Maybe that moment can last forever, like Edna St. Vincent Millay's version of childhood as "the kingdom where nobody dies." No, then we'd be the stone children in that garden, frozen with silent squeals, arms forever raised in delight. Happiness turns into gloom when it's not allowed to change, when the moving parts, loose parts --that playground buzzward--loose parts of families at such loose ends, at the end--one end and one beginning--can't figure out a way to stop staring, to stop the end from coming, to stop feeling dazed by the fact that life changes--it changes, it changes, we knew that--to get in some kind of rag-tag order, to follow the leader--one you imagine still leads (can't bare to think otherwise)--and move forward. 

Secret Garden (1910) 
** Elton John "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" (1982)
***William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951), "The past is never dead, it's not even past."


  1. Oh, Rach. I remember that garden, Miriam's smile, the look on your father's unbelievable it seemed that that lady, Miriam, could leave...

    Thank you for this beautiful (and wrenching) post, I am filled from it...

  2. Rach, this is such a wonderful post. Love that Anais Nin quote and the image of your grandmother in that tiny car with the pitbull, the Brazilians, and the pregnant woman. I think you just found a great opener to your next novel actually. And the park looks so whimsical. Can't believe it's in the city.

  3. You're killing me, especially now, with everything you just said. It's all converging--every last bit and piece of us. I must take M to this garden, before it goes the way of the Thunderbolt and Penn Station, and, dare I say, no....I won't dare (we saw them burn). I'm so busy dying I can't see out. So thank you for the much much needed reminder, to build with the loose parts, to sow the seeds, to just follow the fish as they swim.....the change, the change--that thing that is the only thing that stays the same. Still we rage, when our city is ripped out from under us. Perhaps we can host an interview or two in this secret garden. So sad Miriam could not be a part of the project. I still believe she may find Him yet.

  4. Total avoidance pattern on my part with responding to these comments. Thrilled and touched to receive them, so much so that couldn't answer. Initial delay in responding led to anxiety, leading to further delay, another avoidance cycle begins...Thank you for understanding. Loose parts is starting to seem more and more apt a way to describe who we are. Hey Hey Johnny is such a great song. Thanks Leah for being there at the time -- it meant so much. Thanks J for the novel idea. K for sowing seeds now and yes, let's do at least one interview there while the New York sunset disappears. [Why does this sound oddly like a sleep-deprived post-finals yearbook sign-off?]

  5. I visited it only once when I dropped off my educational toys catalog to the occupational therapists there. The whole building is so out of the way that I never knew it existed! And I've lived downtown for decades.

    The most memorable aspect for me was the birds...they were even more of a surprise than the exotic plants themselves.

    It sounds like you have a core group of mommy admirers/friends. You should check out my site and arrange a trunk show so you can all have a diversion that will net you award-winning products to help your kids grow smarter (I bet they're already all sound like you're giving it all you've got!) Would enjoy meeting your pals....perhaps in a park or garden of your choice!

  6. Update: We have one more year to enjoy it (from a rather unreliable source...but I'll take it, for now). Go visit!! Tell me what you think.


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