By Harriet P. Gross
Is there some intrinsic relationship between gardening and human service? Between helping people and making things grow?
I’m wondering about the connection now because I’ve recently reconnected with a cousin who’s 20 years my junior, whom I haven’t seen since he was a child. Today, he’s a lawyer — something I knew. He’s also something of a farmer — which I didn’t know. Well, not exactly, anyway.
Rob was away at college when I last visited his family in North Carolina. That was a long, long time ago. His dad then showed me a centerfold article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine with a diagram of how to lay out a backyard vegetable garden. Uncle Sol was intrigued. There was lots of ground behind the house, and he was poring over that paper, already making plans. “Rob and I will do this when he gets home,” my uncle said.
When Rob did, the two of them got to work. I heard that their first backyard project produced a bumper crop, and the work was so satisfying that they doubled the garden’s size the following year. Then more produce was produced than their family could consume, so all the friends and neighbors became happy beneficiaries.
Well, Uncle Sol and his wife, my dear Aunt Polly, are long gone. Rob’s older brother died young, too many years ago. Rob’s older sister more recently passed away, and he was in touch to give me the sad news. Now he’s alone in the old family house, part residence, part headquarters for his law practice. He tends both with remarkable care and compassion, I’ve learned.
When Rob graduated with his J.D., he chose to work for Legal Aid in eastern North Carolina. After a few years, he began doing criminal defense work for the indigent, plus assisting some people with disabilities. “As time passed,” he says, “fewer area attorneys did disability cases. They sent them to me. It got to the point that I was spending all day, every day, in the criminal courts, and nights and weekends with my disability practice.” After 20 years laboring at the law, Rob dropped everything else to concentrate on intense work on behalf of the disabled.
“In 2005, the North Carolina State Bar authorized Social Security disability practice as a recognized specialty,” Rob told me. “I had enough experience, continuing legal education, and peer review recommendations to sit for the first exam, which was given in 2006.” He passed, and now toils exclusively in this somewhat rarefied legal vineyard. He says “It’s a generally low level area of law, but it suits me. Each case is like writing a mini-medical and vocational biography, trying to piece together a person’s story.”
And of course, there is the garden, which is a story of its own.
“I enjoy ‘farming’ more than the law,” Rob confesses. “I’ve expanded the backyard garden. The old section is twice as big as it used to be, and after a few trees died and I had them removed, I added another section as large as the first. My next-door neighbor and I also garden together on about a half-acre at the edge of town, on the remnants of her family farm. She is 86 years old and a lifelong farmer; she supervises and advises me, and we ‘share-crop.’ She’s still quite active, still gets on her small tractor to keep her lawn cut. In good years we fill our freezers and give large quantities of fresh vegetables to friends and family.”
My father was a physician with what some would call a “low-level” practice: Sometimes he’d see patients in our house, and accept a chicken or a couple of home-grown cantaloupes instead of the $2 he charged for an office visit. He could hardly wait to get out of his office and back to his backyard flower gardening; I was a bride in that yard, married under a chuppah in the midst of his beautiful roses. Rob’s mother, my beloved Aunt Polly, a Hebrew teacher in her synagogue and a whiz in the kitchen, came from North Carolina to bake my wedding cake.
Love of service, and nurturing people and other growing things. In my father, I saw them go together. In Cousin Rob, I see them together again.
Oh — one more thing: Rob ended his descriptive e-mail, quoted above, this way: “If you thought this message was long, don’t get me started about my bees. I think I’ll hit ‘send’ now, and save them for the next time.”
I can’t wait!
By Harriet P. Gross