My wife and I were listening to the radio program “This American Life” one morning a few weeks before the 2016 presidential election, when one of the interviewees commented “my dad had a wall around our yard when I was a kid — a big wall — that’s what we need in this country.” For me, a childhood memory was triggered.
The year was 1959 and I was 8. My family had just moved to a new home in Los Angeles. We always bought houses that needed lots of work and my brother and I were accustomed to spending our Saturdays working in the yard. This house had a huge, impenetrable wall of bushes on one side fully 12 feet tall and 6 feet thick; wild and untrimmed. On the other side the landscaping blended smoothly, without restriction, into the neighbors yard.
One Saturday, few months after we had moved in, Dad gave us the morning orders: we would cut down the big hedge and pull out the roots. We would continue on this task every Saturday until it was done. Then he showed us the power trimmer he had bought at Sears earlier in the week, and taught us how to pack the trimmings into 4 foot long bundles tied with string (my job) that the city would take away with the trash.
We began, and midway through the morning we were down to the stump on the first bush. As we switched from clipping to digging, our neighbor, Mr. K, came out with another shovel, and quietly began to dig with us. After some digging we pulled the stump out with our station wagon. I remember Mr. K as a serious worker, intent on the task, grim as he dug and chopped at the roots, but then beaming with joy each time a stump came out. The project took weeks: 20 stumps and many dozens of clipping bundles.
Dad and Mr. K became friends, and though Mr. K rarely spoke very much, one night, years later, he told to my father the story of his family. They were Russian Jews who had been dressmakers to the nobility in the last days of the Czar. After WW I, in the chaos of the Russian Revolution, they had escaped through Poland, dressed as peasants. Unable to enter the United States they had traveled by freighter to Argentina, then to Vancouver. They finally crossed into the US at Detroit. After WW II, Mr. K had moved to Los Angeles, a “button and bead” wholesaler to the garment trade. Successful in business he bought a house in the suburbs. And his neighbor planted a hedge, to build a wall.
Until I listened to “This American Life,” I had never connected the dots of this story. Of Mr. K as the child of an immigrant family fleeing from terror, and adapting to a new country. Of his rejection by neighbors. Of his watching year by year as the hedge wall grew. And finally, of pulling the hateful hedge out by its roots. icon-fire