I have a love-hate relationship with my backyard in Montclair.
Mowing the lawn in spring and summer feels like a sweaty, grueling workout at the gym. With insects! And at my age, raking the leaves in the fall challenges every muscle. It is also a clarion call to bring on the allergies.
But then again, for a girl who grew up in a Brooklyn apartment, this quarter acre of my own land is my Garden of Eden. It is the site of countless celebrations that to this day make me light up like a firefly. The many birthdays, holidays, and graduations in our family always were invitations to enjoy greenery, fresh air, and sunshine with the people we love.
Thirty years later, I can still hear kids laughing during the sack races for my son Dan’s “backward” birthday party. My husband Andy’s May birthday parties, always filled with original songs, skits, or poems, and sometimes filled with surprises, are treasured backyard memories.
Although the parties always had been casual, in October 2016 we took it up a notch. After all, it was not every day that Dan got engaged to Shira Lee, the love of his life. To celebrate, we rented a tent, hired a caterer, and had chairs and tables with tablecloths that actually matched. Mums in every color welcomed fall with all its majesty. Gratitude and laughter filled the backyard as we wished the newly engaged couple mazel tov.
In March 2021, in the midst of covid, we found ourselves outside once again, celebrating our grandson’s first birthday. We would not let masks, parkas, and a very small guest list deter us from celebrating this milestone.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah 2021, still struggling through the pandemic, the aroma of chicken soup and brisket replaced the usual backyard smells of the barbecue and suntan lotion. The wind challenged us as we lit candles, but we had no problem making the motzi over Andy’s homemade challah and eating a holiday meal outside.
We collectively recited the Shehecheyanu, but I believe each of us had a personal “Thank you God for reaching this special occasion” conversation. We had reached the New Year in good health, we were able to continue our 35-year custom of ushering in the New Year with dear friends, and we welcomed some new faces (under 5 years old) to the table and under the table. Who can forget my 2-year-old grandson Micah serenading us on the ukulele?
As I reflect on my relationship with my backyard, I understand that even the smallest moments are often the most cherished. For example, on hot, sunny days, rather than tutoring my b’nai mitzvah students in the house, we would relocate to the backyard. There, they practiced their Torah portions accompanied by the birds.
There was the time my daughter Emily (then a future architect) transformed the backyard into a mini-golf course by using Dixie cups, numbering the holes with flags and somehow creating a challenging green.
The kids’ grandparents are long gone, but I can visualize them kvelling as their grandchildren splashed in an inflatable wading pool or ran under the sprinkler. Whether they lounged on the lawn chairs, or “lawned” on the lounge chairs, it was suburban life at its best.
More recently, though, strangers filled the backyard. Strangers? Well, not exactly. What is the correct word for people whom you know only from Zoom and are meeting in person for the first time? Since the pandemic began, I have been teaching my adult ESL classes at Jewish Vocational Service remotely. For a long time, the students and I have been desperate to speak and laugh without worrying about muting and unmuting. We’ve seen everyone’s heads and shoulders, but what about our knees and toes? It finally was time to unshackle ourselves from the constraints of Zoom.
Of course, I could not invite the more than 200 students from five continents that I have met since March 2020. I would have needed a football field, not my humble backyard. So my guest list included students (and their families) from the two most recent sessions, from January to May 2023.
On a beautiful sunny Sunday, 18 people were able to come to my backyard. Some were taller or shorter than I had imagined; others looked exactly as I had pictured them. Avatars suddenly became animated. Did the rest of my body match my smile — the first thing that greets them on the screen three evenings a week? Nobody mentioned it. We were all too busy hugging.
The students are from Haiti, Argentina, Brazil, Georgia, Ukraine, and Turkey; now they live in Millburn, Maplewood, Livingston, the Oranges, Westfield, and Caldwell.
They came laden with gifts — flowers, a Turkish coffee set, and food they had made, as they told me, “from scratch” — one of our weekly idioms. Thanks to Rithcharmand, I now know what Haitian plantains and pickled slaw taste like. Daniella’s homemade doughy cheeseballs taught me that I need to try more dishes from Brazil. The apple cobbler, made by Valeriya but delivered by Marina and Lali (a family from Georgia and Ukraine and most recently Israel), was a big hit. I was touched by the brownies Andrea’s children made, each piece decorated as a tiny book. And who knew there were so many Turkish, Portuguese (a taste of home for the Brazilians) and Russian bakeries in Essex County? Thank you Ayse, Adriana, and Yuliya!
I was already familiar with the young children from their parents’ conversations at our Zoom meetings. But seeing Adriana’s son happily run around with a soccer ball and talking to Regina’s daughter about her new school was like putting on 3D glasses for the first time. Watching Lali’s grandson sit in a highchair (that I just happened to have handy in the basement) reminded me of my two grandsons at that age. She thought nothing of it, but I was speechless when Marina’s daughter told me she speaks five languages: Georgian, Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, and English.
For one afternoon, we forgot about the war in Ukraine, the earthquake in Turkey, and the gangs in Haiti. We didn’t dwell on how families are separated by oceans and time zones. Instead, we appreciated our togetherness. We embraced a future where we are starting from scratch. (There’s that useful idiom again.) When I saw this group interact, I learned why refugees and immigrants will succeed. My students taught me the meaning of resilience. Resilience is not looking back. It is making the most of the present while planning for the future.
Before we said our goodbyes, everyone took a bag full of ESL textbooks that I no longer need. We now are all products of Zoom and Google Classroom and other online resources, but maybe in an old-fashioned moment, they will find the books useful.
Later that evening, as I read all their names on the card my students gave me and looked at the photos from the party, I thought of one of my favorite nightly classroom questions that always encourages a lively conversation.
“Do you remember a party that was extra special? Tell us about it.”
Sometimes students talk about an exciting present or a new outfit they wore at a childhood birthday party. Maybe they cling to the memory of their farewell party before they left for America. Marina mentioned a wedding at the Jewish community center in her hometown in Ukraine. It was a few days before the war started. People had a gut feeling (another one of our idioms) that war was imminent. Nonetheless, they celebrated with abandon before their lives changed forever.
If any of them are asked this question, I hope my students will remember the party in their teacher’s backyard and the writing on the cake that said “WELCOME.” The pandemic and their troubled countries were in the rearview mirror; planting new roots — perhaps in their own backyards — was in the future.
Merrill Silver and her husband live in Montclair; she’s a freelance writer and teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Hadassah magazine, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week, and other publications. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com