The Canarsie Rose

The Canarsie Rose

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Canarsie Rose

In 1931 I was eleven. Grandma was ninety-three. It was during the Great Depression, and she lived with us in a cold water tenement, five floors up. She was bent, wrinkled, and had only one tooth left in her mouth. But, boy, she had a thousand years of magic stored in her head. And to a kid like me, she knew everything. She had all kinds of powders and colored liquids in her room, and when she mixed them up and we slugged them down, no one ever got sick.

She refused to learn English. When I asked her why, she’d shrug and say in Yiddish, “English won’t help when the Cossacks come. They’ll still break our heads.”

“But, Grandma, this is America, we don’t have Cossacks here.”

She’d stare at me for a second and then mumble, “Cossacks are everywhere!”

“You know,” Mom said one day, “Grandma was once very famous.”

“What for, Ma?”

“She grew a rose and it was beautiful. It was six inches wide and white like the cream from the top of the milk. It was so famous that two men from the Czar even came to look. They gave her a paper and it was such an honor that the Rabbi himself read it to us from the shul.

“Was it like a medal, Ma?”

“Yeah, some medal. A week later the Cossacks came riding through the shtetl breaking our heads and tearing the rose to pieces. Right after that we were all on a boat sailing for America.”

The story of the rose bugged me, and I begged Pop to find her another. Where we lived a blade of grass was considered a plant. A rose bush? Unheard of. Leave it to Pop; a week later he lugged a pot up five flights and handed Grandma a tiny new rose bush.

She immediately sifted the soil in her hands and nodded her head in pleasure. After gently placing it on the fire escape, she kissed Pop on both cheeks and cried.

That summer I could see why the Czar sent his men to give her a prize. She fed and rubbed her rosebush with different concoctions. Even the thorns became her friends. The bush grew sturdy and when a bud finally appeared, she nurtured it like another child. At night she would sit near the fire escape and speak tenderly to it in Slavish, Polish, Romansch, and a few more languages that I didn’t understand.

In the beginning of July six souls crouched on the fire escape, dizzy with excitement, watching as the huge bud unfolded its creamy white petals. She had grown a perfect white rose.

Not long after that Pop gave us some good news. The bunch of us, me, my two sisters, Grandma and Mom and Pop were moving to Brooklyn. To a section called Canarsie out in the boondocks. Around us were miles of farmland stretching into the distance.

We were homesteading in a part of Brooklyn that was like the plains of Iowa and Kansas. Flat rolling land, green with eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes growing everywhere. Grandma took one look and started to cry. Ninety-three and she had finally discovered America.

The house came with a back yard, and Pop started a vegetable garden. Mom planted hollyhocks and some other stuff, but the centerpiece was the rose bushes, Grandma’s private preserve. That summer she planted six in different colors: reds, pinks, peach, and her creamy white that was going to look like the top of the milk. They bloomed and were gorgeous. But still, Grandma wasn’t satisfied.

“I need a horse,” she said. “Not just a horse, a special horse.”

“For what, Grandma?”

“With the right horse I can use the manure for the rose.

Maybe this time the Cossacks won’t come.”

“Isn’t all horse manure the same, Grandma?”

“What are you, meshugas? There are hundreds of qualities and I need the best!”

So Mom and I were always on the lookout for the right kind of horse manure. We carried a shovel and filled bag after bag. They all failed Grandma’s acid test. Like a fine wine sniffer she would pulverize the manure in her hand, take a whiff, and proclaim our fertilizer no good. Poor Grandma, she was looking for the perfect bouquet.

And then one day we had a big surprise; new neighbors moved in next door. They arrived with a big horse and wagon that said “Borden’s Milk” on the side. Grandma and Mom were at Bill and Grace Hart’s door the minute the furniture was inside. They carried a big welcome basket filled with Jewish goodies: hamantaschen, strudel, even the ruggelach that I was counting on eating that night. The Harts were Irish, and their brogue was as foreign to Grandma as the man in the moon. The gesture, thought, brought tears to the old milkman’s eyes. His horse Buck and the Borden’s wagon were still at the curb, and when Grandma looked him over, she swooned!

“You see that horse,” she said. “He has a golden tuchas. When he kvetches, diamonds will come out!”

“How do you know, Grandma?”

“How do I know, boychick? With a horse like that, the Czar gave me a medal.”

Bill was a kindred spirit in his love for flowers and never failed to leave a bag of fertilizer at our front door with two quarts of milk. By now they were old pals with a friendship based on shrugs, grimaces and red and blue liquids that they both shared. With the mixture of Grandma’s voodoo and Bill’s manure they were developing gargantuan flowers and rose buds as big as a fist.

Just when he was needed most, Buck developed a severe case of constipation. No more diamonds were tumbling out. It was a crisis, and in a few days the Borden Milk company sent a replacement, a horse called Nick. I thought Nick was great, but Grandma pined away for Buck. More bad news. Bill told us Buck had three days to get well or he’d be turned into dog food.

“Murderers! Murderers!” Grandma screamed. She was positive the Cossacks were out to get her new rose.

“Not this time, boychick!”

The next day Bill took Grandma and me to the Borden stable and we got ready for the cure. A gallon of prunes, plums and other stuff from her arsenal of medications produced nothing but a little wind. This was much more than Grandma expected. We slept that night in the barn with Buck and toward dawn we watched as the old magician started her mysterious incantations. Bill was hypnotized. She was calling for the same spirits that his sainted mother invoked when he was a boy. He crossed himself a couple of times, and we watched as Grandma whipped out a Star of David and swung it in front of Buck three times. Nothing, not even a little gas. But she was biding her time.

When the sun rose in the east, she made her big move. “Boychick,” she shouted, “what we need is a tub full of Shmetina. You understand? Shmetina!

“What do you need sour cream for, Grandma?”

“Don’t ask, just get it!”

So Bill and Pop got a ton of sour cream and ladled it into Buck’s trough. Not just plain sour cream, but stuff that she fortified with a royal blue broth. That horse Buck lapped up the sour cream like an old Galitziana (member of a neighboring Jewish tribe), licking his chops. Suddenly there was an explosion that almost blew off the rafters and caused the other horses to stampede out of Borden’s front gate. Fertilizer came pouring out of Buck like a burst dam. Fertilizer so rich in enzymes and proteins that it revolutionized Canarsie farms forever. A teaspoon of Buck’s manure now accomplished what fifty pounds did before. Grandma and her blue sour cream had produced a new strain that created monsters in the garden. Cantaloupes as big as basketballs, dahlias as big as your head, and roses . . . oh boy, what roses!

The Canarsie Chamber of Commerce and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens awarded Grandma and Bill their highest honor for the creamy white rose. This new strain was even given a Latin name: “Buckitus Shemtinitus.”

When she accepted her medal, Grandma leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Boychick, get ready! Tonight the Cossacks will come for this rose.”

Mike Lipstock

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