The sidewalk in our neighborhood, unusual for the galaxy of Chicago pavement, ends a block and a half up the street.
At the last house, across from a vast tree-ringed field, the sidewalk stops. If you're small like Spot, you'll notice that the regular series of cracks that mark the progress of your daily walk come to an end, and an unruly universe of chlorophyll, litter, and uneven ground opens ahead of you.
Instead of the cracks, so useful for games of 2-square, we come upon a transition of cosmic proportions. Behind us, smooth concrete pavement skirting a row of tidy homes. Ahead, beyond the edge of the last concrete paver, the wilderness: dirt, weeds, the riotous undergrowth of mid-summer, low-hanging mulberries, the snow of cottonwood in July, and a grassy path along the ancient lake shore where the trains go by.
There are no moon-birds where this sidewalk ends, and no peppermint wind, but there is a community garden, some garbage, an old tree-house, an occasional homeless person, and a 93-year old German gardener named Gerta.
Or maybe that's not right: Gerta may indeed be a moon-bird. If nothing else, she is certainly a very rare creature, a sort of ivory-billed woodpecker swooping out of the European past. On our last few walks, Spot and I have learned that, as she put it, there are two things that keep Gerta alive: summer gardening, and, in the winter, season tickets to the symphony.
We've invited her over for dinner, but she won't come. She used to attend free concerts at the University a few blocks away, but got tired of asking for rides. If she goes anywhere now, she walks to her garden along the tracks, or takes the bus downtown to Symphony Hall. We usually find her where the sidewalk ends.
After a number of conversations about dill and chives, drainage and fragrant mosses, I attempted myself to turn some earth.
"Where were you born?"
"When did you leave Germany?"
So she was there. She had seen it all. At least, everything anyone would have needed to see, and more than anyone would have wanted to, before getting out. Which she did, leaving behind a brother in the SS, another in the infantry, and a mother in the Party. It was ten years, she told me, before she went back, sat down with her family at the kitchen table and told them that everything that had happened, they had brought upon themselves.
Spot sits in my arms, nibbling on his forefinger as he does when in a contemplative mood, and lets us talk, about crooked Chicago politics, Japanese beetles, and the butterfly season. We talk about the election of January, 1933, when Gerta was 17, and she remembers the day.
These are some of the most interesting conversations of my daily stay-at-home-dadness, far more interesting than any chit chat at the playground. They all happen on the sidewalk, near the end of it. I'm beginning to realize that a lot of stuff happens on the sidewalk. Spot's first few steps, kids on bikes and push scooters, averted glances, altercations, and joyous reunions.
And Gerta. I'm glad Spot knows Gerta. It's a strange but pleasant feeling holding a baby and talking to this stooped, lucid, bronzed and 93 year-old German gardener, who crosses challenging traffic twice each day to tend to her flowers and greens, and can prove to Spot, or at least to me, that the world began much earlier than the day either of us were born.