Heroes, heretics and the life span of flowers

When I was 8, my family moved from a rental apartment in the South Bronx to a house in New Rochelle which my father had purchased (for $8,000, w/mortgage). I felt somewhat royal, until my third grade classmates at my new school treated me as a pariah.

It was painful and I was too shy to cope effectively — whatever “effective” is for an 8 year old — so I spent a few months, until the end of the school year, in an abyss of loneliness and rejection, especially when the school determined I was lacking math skills and I had to stay after school to remedy this perceived stupidity.

The only relief I had was at recess, when I would escape to the swings. I flew high and long and daydreamed, probably renovating my current life by imagining an imminent magical event through which I’d suddenly become popular.

Eight-year-old kids can be nasty little folk. Their self-definition seems to require a clique to affirm their superiority, as well as a new, weird contemporary — an Other, in this case, me — they can shun theatrically.

Thus, I’d walk sadly home from school every afternoon to find my cheerful, energetic mom who was, in substance, my only friend.

Both she and my father, children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, had grown up in lower class circumstances. My father’s family had been so poverty-stricken, they had required welfare to survive. So that middle-class house was an achievement for my parents.

My mom, a teacher who figured she’d return to teaching when her three kids had grown up a bit, took up gardening in the strips of arable land around the house. She got me involved in planting flowers, probably because she recognized I had nothing to do in the afternoons since I had no friends to do things with.

Pansies, petunias, tulips and daffodils. Cosmos in the very small back yard, where they proliferated so rapidly and so wildly, they seemed to be out of “The Sleeping Beauty.” A short row of hyacinths pre-dated our life there, as did lilac bushes which wafted their ineffable sweetness onto our front porch where, years later, my mom would sit reading when she was dying of cancer.

Helping Mom garden was how I picked up the sparse knowledge I have of flora. The flora fact that adhered particularly was that flowers could be annuals, which had to be replanted every year, or perennials, which didn’t.

As I dug and dampened holes for those perennials, as I nestled each one of those ugly bulbs below the earth, it seemed preferable the bulb could be counted on to sprout a beautiful flower every year. My farming efforts had to result in something more permanent than a flashy little pansy.

An 8-year-old child, bearing the stigma of math failure, probably isn’t prone to consciously developed metaphors or — given our a-religious home — an awareness of such radical concepts as heresy. Even so, here I am, a fully developed adult, telling you that when I set out to write here about heroes and heretics I had no plans to write about our garden. Yet somehow I did. Seems that those undeveloped bulbs were simultaneously seeding in their young farmer the inchoate capacity for metaphor.

Thus, the metaphor:

Heroes are annuals, heretics are perennials.

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