Book Review: Memoir as Love Letter — “Into the Garden with Charles”
Into the Garden with Charles reads like a great love letter: beautifully written, full of feeling, a document of an intimate connection that never lost its wonder for the author.
Into the Garden with Charles: A Memoir by Clyde Phillip Wachsberger. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 224 pages, $28.
It’s been a long time since I held in my hands a book that transported me back to the magic of my early reading. Everything about Into the Garden with Charles—its evocative title; its cover illustration of crimson hollyhocks and the dozen other water color illustrations on glossy, white pages; the simply-told story of a shy, lonely man who late in life finds the romance he has dreamed of—beguiled me in the way of childhood classics such as The Secret Garden. I didn’t want to put it down and when it ended, I wanted to start at the beginning again.
Although I succumbed to this book like a girl, the adult part of me wondered how in this age of irony had this gay middle-aged New Yorker managed to skate so close to cliché and sentimentality and yet write a memoir that reads like the most romantic of love letters?
Here’s how it begins:
Charles is on the next-to-top step of our wobbly A-frame ladder, trimming our privet hedge, wielding the electric clippers with the concentration of a sculptor. I’m on the bottom rung, steadying him, looking up at him tall against puffy white clouds and brilliant blue sky. . . . Not for the first time, I wonder if I have invented Charles. For half a century I daydreamed of a devoted companion, a best friend, a cherished lover. Maybe I’m still dreaming. If any neighbors strolled past right now, would they see me holding on to an empty ladder; staring up at the sky, talking to myself?
As he muses, “Skip” Wachsberger is standing on Village Lane, a street in the village of Orient on the northeastern tip of Long Island. Two decades earlier, on a rainy afternoon in the winter of 1982, the New York artist, then drawing unemployment, was visiting a friend when he learned that a 300-year-old house with a yard was for sale. His c.v. identified Wachsberger as a graduate of Columbia who had attended art school in London and painted sets at the Metropolitan Opera. He would have preferred to buy a place with a partner but, at 38, he had given up on finding one. Wachsberger looked forward to spending weekends away from Manhattan and to creating a garden.
Wachsberger’s family did not tend a garden, but, as a child, Skip associated the activity with love, pleasure, and sex. He recalls growing a peach tree from a pit, buying plants with his father every year at a nursery, and watching an Italian maintenance man rake his family’s lawn. He never spoke to him, but says “I scripted many conversations that usually ended with my convincing Tony to take a shower in out basement bathroom. That was the extent of it, because going into my teens I knew absolutely nothing about sex, heterosexual or homosexual. My family never uttered a word about anything so intimate. What little I knew about romance I had learned from black-and-white movies on television (where) romance usually ended tragically and love was rarely requited. Only in screwball comedies did love win out. I wanted my life to be a screwball comedy, starring Cary Grant.”
It didn’t work out that way. Wachsberger alludes to relationships that went nowhere but does not provide the details. He writes that he more or less sat out the heady post-Stonewall decades. “I did not fit comfortably into the gay lifestyle” of the 1970s and 80s, he writes. He entered the famous hook-up venue the Continental Baths once for a concert “and [he] was dressed in a suit and tie, which [he] kept on.” He prefers to keep his psychological clothes on for most of this memoir as well.
Disappointed in love, Wachsberger channeled his energies into creating a garden that “became as demanding and manipulative as a jealous lover and as high maintenance.”
He gardened his way into middle age, first on weekends. Eventually, he became so involved in its evolution that he sold his city apartment, quit his job, and moved to Orient full-time. The garden became a multi-layered, multi-textured, year-round marvel, with an ever-growing number of plants and flowers. To support it and his share of expenses for an ailing mother, Wachsberger took a job at a local nursery, maintaining other people’s gardens.
In 1995 he turned 50, still single in a small town where everyone else—gay and straight—was part of a couple. He contemplated moving to San Diego, took a trip to reconnoiter, and considered suicide when California turned out not to be his answer. One year later, at 51, he answered an ad in the Personals of the local newspaper and met 47-year-old Charles Dean, a Southerner and maitre d’ at the Hotel Carlyle on Manhattan’s East Side.
Wachsberger’s account of their first date—lunch the day before Valentine’s Day under a paper mache banana tree at a Vietnamese restaurant called Miss Saigon—is one of the most hilarious of the genre that I have ever read.
“In Orient, my Dawn viburnam is blooming right now,” says Skipper and he explains that he had more than 300 varieties of roses in his garden. Charles wracks his brain for horticultural references and name drops, then makes tea back at his apartment where he shows off his collection of prints.
“He was strikingly attractive, a maitre d’ in one of the best restaurants in New York, who must meet thousands of people,” Skipper writes. “Why would he be interested in me all the way out on eastern Long Island?”
The next day the phone rings in Village Lane, and Charles announces he is coming to visit.
I leave it to you to read the rest. Into the Garden tells several stories: it sketches the life of a day-dreaming boy and shy man who loved plants. It recounts the love story of Skipper and Charles. It describes the creation of a garden from scratch in clear, simple prose. The illustrations are as straightforward, winning, and old-fashioned as the writing.
In his Acknowledgements, the author, who died soon after completing this memoir, refers to 10 years of editing and polishing it at a local writer’s workshop. The result reads like a great love letter: beautifully written, full of feeling, a document of an intimate connection that never lost its wonder for the author.
It’s rare that I gush about a book but I do here. Buy it for yourself and for the people you love. It’s a great gift.
Helen Epstein is an author, translator and publisher. Her work can be found here.