I was up near Tacoma the other month, visiting a friend at his mother’s house. He’s an old student, and probably the most morally serious person I know: remarkably earnest, honest, soulful, responsible—a true adult, in an age that’s conspicuously short of them. I had been up there a couple of years ago for his wedding. His mother is Korean, a short old lady with a nimbus of white hair, tough as a toenail, who gets out of bed before dawn every morning to read the Bible and go for a long hike in the local park. Seeing her in action at the wedding, I thought, Jewish mothers haven’t got a thing on Korean grandmothers. If I had to go into battle, I’d want to be led by a Korean grandmother.
Now my friend and his wife were back with a baby. While they were off inside wrestling with diapers, I checked out the garden his mother had built on the tall slope behind the house. It had been a garbage dump, my friend had told me, when they moved in 30 years ago. Now it exuded the spare, serene atmosphere that I associate with Japanese gardens. Maples balanced junipers with subtle symmetry. Stairs and paths invited you into the shadows. Statues of St. Francis and the Virgin looked out from between the foliage. The whole thing was immaculate.
Later, his mother joined us on the patio. “America’s a great country!” she declared. I wasn’t about to object, so I just smiled and nodded. “America’s a great country!” she repeated. Then she started telling me about the garden. Did I see that fence at the top? She had put it in herself. Fifty-five sacks of concrete, one at a time, every day after work, for the posts. She wouldn’t let the children help. Then she’d had an irrigation system put in; it had cost her $2,600 but it was taking her four hours to do the watering and today it would run $10,000 at least. The bars on the windows of the house, the canopy above the patio—she had done those, too. She was doing things all the time.
Finally I said, “You know what makes America great?” She shook her head. “You do. People like you.” She laughed. “I’m serious,” I said. “People who built the country with their bare hands.” I pointed to the garden. “That’s the part that you built.” Then I pointed to my friend: “And that’s another part.”
This piece was originally published on Sept. 9, 2012, as part of William Deresiewicz’s All Points blog.
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