Susan Einhorn Tends to Her Roots
Three decades after her father died, the theater director healed her relationship with him through his favorite hobby: gardening
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Susan Einhorn told her story to her daughter, producer Lucy Little, for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The only time I profoundly connected with my dad was when I was gardening. The bittersweetness is, we couldn’t share it while he was still alive.
In high school my friends called me Sue. My dad called me, a shaina maidela, which means pretty little girl in Yiddish.
I was born in the Bronx and then have been in, or worked in, or studied in, every borough except Staten Island. I am a theatrical director, now freelance, and recently retired from 38 years of college teaching at Queens College, where I was head of the acting program, professor of theater.
I’m in High Falls, New York, which is a little town about ten miles from New Paltz, New York. Forty years ago when we bought this house in High Falls, I knew in my heart that I had come home.
Here in the country, I have fresh air. I’m on water, and I have my gardens. Just this morning, I went outside to see which of the irises had started to bloom.
I wouldn’t be here in this house today if it weren’t from my family’s relationship to this area. My parents immigrated to New York in 1947 from Poland. They were sponsored by my father’s family, the Andermans, who happened to have a hotel at that time called the Breezy Lawn in Ellenville, New York, which is 14 miles from here exactly. My mother was going to be a chambermaid at this hotel. My father was going to be a vegetable gardener, something I believe he’d never done before. It was an unhappy marriage; they were not well suited and my mother was mean to him.
They both survived the Holocaust. My mother survived in a convent. They passed as Catholics. My father fought with the Polish partisans, some of whom were Jewish, some of whom were not, and spent a lot of time in ditches in the forests of Poland.
They both had suffered tremendous losses of everyone. Their entire families were lost. My mother’s child, Lily, was six years old, and my mother meant to save her life by giving her away to a non-Jewish family, but it ended up the opposite. They gave a party to celebrate that they had this little girl. They told someone she was Jewish, and someone called the Nazis. They came and took her away, and she was very shortly after that killed.
My father was married to his high school sweetheart, and had two daughters. Because he was fighting with the partisans, they were apart, and with no communication, of course, for a very long time, my father’s wife assumed that my father was dead. She decided she couldn’t live without him, so she took the two girls and turned herself into the Nazis, and they were killed. So when my father did return and found that out, I think the trauma was beyond words.
I don’t know how anybody could have overcome that. How can you open your heart again and love fully when all you remember you’re gonna lose it, and it’s gonna be painful?
Certainly with my mother, nothing I could ever do would somehow justify, which is a terrible word, why that child, her daughter, had to die when she was obviously going to be the most incredible human ever created. So, it was a losing game for me. When I was born, there was just no way that I could overcome that destiny.
My father did love me very much, but it was at a distance.
Everything about my growing up years at home with them was geared toward escaping. I didn’t have a lot of spare time where I was watching my father garden. So all, all I remember is seeing the result of his gardening that he was very proud of.
My dad’s relationship to gardening was it was his passion, partly because it was something he did alone. It must have brought him some sort of refuge, some sort of respite. But he didn’t talk about it, he just obviously loved it, getting his hands dirty, planting, watching things grow. The produce was so prodigious. He planted roses and they did really well. I very much remember how happy it made him. There’s an iconic photo of him in a pale blue suit and a tie, where he did a photo op of him pointing to his zucchini, with a big smile on his face.
He spent all the years in the war hiding in trenches and mud, fighting the Nazis from a ditch in the ground, in the dirt. Maybe for him there was some connection with the life-affirming aspect of now he’s out of the ditch and he survived, and here he is back in the dirt, but for positive reasons, to grow things that we could eat, and enjoy the beauty of the roses. So the garden became everything to him.
I was 32 years old when my father died. I had no thought of taking over his garden or anything.
We bought the house in 1982, two years later. When I got the house, there were gardens here. I had to garden. I knew nothing. The things I bought were so silly, and the garden was so silly looking back on it. But I learned by doing.
Everything about wanting to start gardening, and not knowing how, but doing it anyway, everything about it, consciously and unconsciously, was a memorial to him in some way. Here I was on my own doing what he had asked me to do before, and I felt like he was watching down on me and happy that I was finally getting my hands in the dirt.
I never don’t think of him when I’m working in the garden. It’s kind of beautiful. It’s just a constant presence, like he’s over my shoulder. And so, it’s something we share.
I look at my garden and I’m proud of how much I learned by myself. I don’t grow vegetables, but I do grow many flowers, and he would be proud of me.
Gardening encompasses the whole cycle of life. If you’re planting something new, you’re choosing what to plant, and then you plant it with hopes that it will grow. You never know. Then you nurture it, and you watch it, and you love it. Then it grows, and flowers if it’s flowering, blooms, and then it dies, and there it is. And the cycle just repeats every year. There is no more profound lesson than that.
One of the absolute priorities of my life is to break the cycle of trauma by the way that I relate to and openly and overtly show my daughter love and support. Everything about that is the exact opposite of what I had. I have done nothing but unconditionally love my daughter. So I believe I have fulfilled my wish to start to break the trauma.
My advice to gardeners is you plant, you take care of it, you watch it blossom, you watch it die. Be grateful and let it go.
Susan Einhorn splits her time between New York City and the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where she’s been gardening for over 40 years, with no plans of stopping anytime soon.