I met Mr. Cohen in the fall of 1958.
After spending two hours rummaging through a vacant lot along Morningside Drive, I’m dragging my rusted and barely operable Western Auto wagon full of discarded soda pop bottles home for counting. Redeemable for 2 cents each, the glass containers will yield the change I need for a few Moon Pie’s and perhaps an RC Cola, readily available at our neighborhood grocer.
Unfortunately, money for me is scarce. When I asked for a dime or even a few pennies, my parent’s stock answer was, “money? kids don’t need money. What in the world will you do with money? Go out and play.” As a result, I am habitually broke and maybe the only kid I know with an empty piggy bank and lint-filled pockets.
Three houses away from home, a stout man in white tee-shirt plants himself in front of my wagon, blocking the sidewalk and my path home. He is not a large man, and his manner is more friendly than intimidating.
I’ve seen him a few times before, mowing his grass, trimming a bush, or sweeping the sidewalk in front of his tidy home, which happens to be the envy of our block.
A black Buick sits in his driveway. A banker or a young doctor’s car if they can’t afford the required Caddie. Professional folks drive Buicks; the rest of the peons must drive Fords or Chevrolets, or in the worst case, a Plymouth or Studabaker. My family owns a Chevy and my grandfather a Plymouth. One of my cousins drives a Corvette with factory air conditioning, but he is single and spends money like a sailor on shore leave.
The man extends his arm with a large hand attached. I lack proper adult protocol and stare at his appendage like a moron. It takes a moment to realize his intention, and then I reluctantly put my small hand in his. We shake hands, and he introduces himself.
Milo Cohen is the first adult male to shake my hand.
Unfortunately, my father or grandfather hasn’t found the time to educate me on the social requirements of impending manhood, so I am young and culturally ignorant. Until this time, my contact with the adult world has been limited to a few of my parent’s friends, my baseball coach, teachers, and relatives who view me as a noisy nuisance to be constantly reprimanded. At that moment, I grow up a little.
Mr. Cohen makes pleasant talk about the neighborhood. He and Mrs. Cohen have lived here for the past 8 years since they came to Texas from the old country. He speaks with an accent I’ve not heard, so I imagine he is not from Texas.
My collection of throw-away bottles catches his attention. I tell him it’s my way of making a bit of change for Saturday movies or a Moon Pie. He nods as if he understands my predicament, then excuses himself and walks to his garage, returning with a wheelbarrow full of empty soda pop bottles. There must be a hundred bottles stacked in rows upon rows. Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Grapette, RC Cola, and Frosty root beer; all the best brands. Mr. Cohen says he has been saving them for years, and I could make better use of them. He graciously gifts me his collection of classic bottles.
Dumbfounded and grateful, I struggle to find my voice and finally manage to spit out a squeaky “thank you.” He accepts my awkward attempt, and we are immediate friends for life.
The following Saturday, I notice Mr. Cohen trimming the bushes in front of his house. I walk down for a visit, assuming that we are now friends and I can come onto his property uninvited to pester him. Instead, he welcomes my presence and appears to enjoy my childish questions. ” Why do you cut some of the roses off and leave the others?” I ask.
He explains, ” I cut the spent and almost spent blooms off to make room for the new ones. Always break apart the old blooms and throw the spent petals onto the ground because they become fertilizer for the plant.” This bantering about pruning goes on for a while, then we are on to other botanical mysteries. For example, I had no idea that the angle a stem is pruned reflects rainwater and deters rot, and cut correctly, it will coax the branch to grow in a specific direction. Finally, he asked me if I would care to learn more about plants? I accept his offer. Lifes education comes in different forms, at the most unusual times.
Mr. Cohen’s landscape is a picturesque postcard of beauty, and not by accident. His story is, as a boy, back in the old country, he learned the care of plants and all things botanical from his mother and father. But, unfortunately, he doesn’t say where the old country might be, and I am too polite to inquire.
My Saturdays and some Sunday afternoons find me at Mr. Cohens, assisting him with his gardening. But, unfortunately, I feel that I am more a hindrance than a botanical apprentice.
After a few weeks of instruction, he gives me an older pair of rusted pruning shears, warning that they are sharp and will lop off my finger if not used properly. Under his guidance, I prune my first bush, an Autumn Rose Salvia that has become unruly and obstinate. An hour goes by, and I finish the task. Mr. Cohen tells me it’s one of the better pruning jobs he has seen in a while. I know it’s a little better than a hot mess, but I smile like a drooling fool. “Next week,” he says, ” we will tackle a pithy Pitisporum.” He assigns human traits to his plants. Odd, but I like it.
A week before Halloween, my grandfather passes away. It was expected to happen sooner than later. Mustard Gas from the first world war is the likely reason for his cancer, says the doctor at the VA Hospital. No cure; his days were numbered from the moment he inhaled the gas. The trenches of France offered no retreat.
It’s my first funeral, and I don’t know how to grieve as expected. My grandmother and relatives are professionals; they should be paid for their performance, wailing and thrashing about sporting contorted faces for days. I feel the loss of his presence, but I can’t find a tear to shed.
Mr. Cohen, with my assistance, plants a Gardenia bush in our front yard in memory of grandfather. Then, Mrs. Cohen delivers a large basket of comfort food and a bottle of wine to our household. She tells me it’s what is done in the old country. Food for the comfort of the soul and wine for soothing the spirit. Her accent echos Mr. Cohens. She is a kind lady with sad brown eyes and unruly hair.
While digging the hole for the Gardenia bush, I notice a series of crude black numbers on the inside of Mr. Cohens’ left forearm. I’ve seen him with dirt to his elbows and never noticed the numbers before. It looks to be a tattoo. So, I ask him what they mean. He pauses for a moment, then says, ” those numbers are my phone number, so in case I am run down by a bus, the authorities will know to call Mrs. Cohen.” Makes perfect sense to me; everyone should be so considerate.
A few days later, I mentioned Mr. Cohens’ tattoo and his explanation to my father. He laughs, then takes a moment and sits with me on the back porch steps, something he rarely does.
“Mr. Cohen,” he says,” is, from what I hear around the neighborhood, is of the Jewish faith. Before, and during the war, the one that I fought in, the Nazi’s incarcirated many millions of men, women and children in camps across Europe. They were treated horribly. Most died, but a few managed to survive and come to America to start a new life. I believe the tattoo on his arm might be his identification number. It will always be with him as a reminder.”
I know nothing of the Jewish faith, or the Nazi’s or of camps. But, public schooling is teaching us about the Alamo and the Revolutionary War and not much of recent history. Now, I know just enough to embarrass myself, so I pledge not to question Mr. Cohen further. I am sad to know my friend endured that treatment. The adult world is a cruel one. I wonder if there is a way I can remain at this age forever?
Thanksgiving arrives with bitter cold and sleet. The trees drop what leaves remain, and Mr. Cohens’ landscape, within a few days, turns from green to hues of gold and brown. Winter is early this year, and my botanical apprenticeship is paused until next spring. He gives me a binder of handwritten gardening instructions to study. His book is much more challenging than any from school. I vow to be ready when March arrives.
Ten days before Christmas, and I have not seen Mr. Cohen. His car has not moved from its usual spot in his driveway. At night, there is one light burning in the kitchen. The rest of the house is dark and lonely.
One afternoon, after school, I knocked on their door. Mr. Cohen answers but doesn’t invite me inside, although it is bitter cold. He says Mrs. Cohen is ill and needs her rest. I ask if there are any chores I can help with? He says that removing the remaining leaves and hauling them to the backyard compost pile would be a great help. He pays me a new quarter, knowing I am suitable for the work. I notice his eyes are rimmed with dark blue circles, and the pallor of his skin reminds me of my grandfather’s last days.
Christmas Eve arrives, and there are snow flurries in the air. Father stands on our front porch, smoking a cigarette and checking the weather. He finds a small wrapped package leaning against the front door jamb. It’s for me.
The Cohens gift me a shiny pair of pruning shears and leather yard gloves. I feel bad because I slipped a rather childish Christmas card that I made into their mailbox, being all I could afford. Crayons and construction paper only go so far. It’s the thought that counts from what I am told. I need more soda pop bottles.
New Year passes, and I have still not seen Mr. Cohen. School is back in session, and I am distracted with my studies and homework. But, then, my mother tells me there was an obituary in the newspaper for Mrs. Cohen, and her funeral service was a few days ago. Why did I not know this? I am crushed.
I take my pruning shears and gloves and retreat to the front porch steps. It’s a bitter day, and my jeans do little to protect my rear from the cold concrete. But I am already numb, so it doesn’t matter.
The tears that couldn’t be found for my grandfather now flow for Mrs. Cohen and then for other things as well.
I cry for my sweet dog that my parents gave away when we moved without telling me. I call for my dead puppy. I yearn for my old neighborhood, and my friends and home that was taken from me without explanation, and because my parents planted me in this hell hole of a neighborhood. I cry angry tears for my treatment from the snotty rich kids at my new school that called me white trash because I have patches on my jeans and an old winter coat. It all comes out at once. Finally, my final tears flow for my friend Mr. Cohen, who I know is suffering from a broken heart, and there is nothing I can do to help him.
At the end of February, I visit Mr. Cohen. He asks if I have studied my notebook and am I ready for spring gardening? Of course, I reply yes on all counts. It’s good to have him back, and I am happy to resume my newfound craft.
The weather is still cold, but there are woody shrubs to prune, flower beds to turn, mulch and compost to spread, bulbs to plant, it’s an overwhelming task, but I enjoy every minute. My mentor notices my happiness, and in return, it makes him proud. He is back to his old self as much as he can be. March is a week away, and spring will not wait for dawdlers. Green blades of grass are poking up through his brown lawn; we had best hurry up.
April comes, and spring explodes. Mr. Cohen’s landscape, with my help, will have an award-winning year if he chooses to seek recognition from the Botanical Society of Fort Worth; but, he is a shy man and doesn’t require accolades for his passion and craft. So, I, too, now share that passion.
In June, my parents announced that we were again moving. This time to Wichita Falls, Texas, not quite the end of the world, but almost halfway there. My father is starting a new career building homes and will no longer be a professional musician. Once again, within a few years, my life will be uprooted and thrown to the wind. I have no say, so I offer no resistance. It will be good to be away from that hateful school and this part of Fort Worth. I spend as much time with Mr. Cohen as possible, helping him with chores and tending his landscape before we leave.
Moving day arrives, the truck is loaded, the doors locked, and we follow the moving truck out of town. I said goodbye to Mr. Cohen that morning. He gives me additional pages for my notebook, his address if I find time to drop him a line, and his phone number if I ever get in a jamb. We shake hands, and I am gone.
A decade passes in what seems like a matter of months. I have graduated high school and live in Plano, Texas. My father is a successful home builder, and those miserable days in Fort Worth seem a lifetime back. For some reason, there is a family gathering in Fort Worth, and I take my own car, so I might leave early and visit Mr. Cohen. There were a few Christmas cards over the years, and then correspondence dwindled. I got older, and so did he.
When I pull up in front of his home, I instantly know Mr. Cohen doesn’t live here. In the driveway are a Volkswagen Bug and a station wagon. No black Buick. The landscape still looks cared for but is many steps below Mr. Cohens’ standards. The trim of the house is a different color. The large Sycamore tree in the yard is gone. But, it was bound to happen.
A woman answers the door. She looks to be in her early thirties; I hear children from somewhere in the house. Her husband joins her. I introduce myself, explaining that I lived a few houses down for four years and was a good friend of Mr. Cohen, the original owner. The couple has lived in the house for five years and purchased it from Mr. Cohen’s estate. That explains the cease in correspondence. Unfortunately, Mr. Cohen is no longer alive.
The woman leaves and returns with a binder full of notes. A book much like the one I have. It seems Mr. Cohen left specific written instructions, with notes, letters, and sketches, for whoever buys his home. The new owners will care for the landscape for a minimum of five years, following his instructions in the book to the letter. The man says my name is mentioned many times in the book and that I was Mr. Cohens’ only apprentice. I felt they were fishing for a compliment, so I stretched the truth a bit and said, ” the landscape looks beautiful; I’m sure Mr. Cohen would approve.” It was a little more than a hot mess. The both of them smiled like drooling fools.