My family had just moved into a house in Rockville Centre. It was 1957 and I was six years old then. I remember that morning, because my brother had been playing his phonograph record of Elvis Presley's hit song, "Blue Suede Shoes." For hours, he had been playing that same LP 33 repeatedly. Was I ever glad to get out of the house. While playing in the driveway, my pink punch ball bounced into my neighbor's backyard.
After hopping over this small picket fence, I looked around. I was astonished. I had found myself in a secluded sanctuary, where exotic flora and Japanese Red Maples encircled an amazing rock pond. Rising from behind the pond grew an old gnarled wisteria vine, which draped its leaves and pink blossom petals down to the water, like a shower of green flakes of jade and abalone. Darting between the submerged rocks, I marveled at several black and vermilion colored goldfish.
Without a warning, a deep quivering voice spoke succinctly. My body jerked from fear. I turned towards the direction of the voice. Hunching over a briarwood cane, an old lady stood motionless, like a stone statue chiseled from white alabaster. She wore a faded pastel housedress beneath an ashen fishnet shawl and a three-inch brown tortoise-shell clip that held up her long cream-colored hair in a bun. Miss Cogan, a retired schoolteacher, was eighty-eight years old. Spying through her gold-rimmed thick bifocals, I noticed her cloudy light-blue eyes.
"There were some boys from across the street and they were back here disrupting the rocks in the pond the other day. I caught them trying to catch the gold fish and I scared them off. I know that you would not do such a thing. I noticed that you enjoyed watching them swim in the pond and I saw you looking at the plants and trees. If you would like to come into my yard, I would prefer that you use the gate next time. You have my permission. Does my unexpected guest have a name?"
"Yes, sure I do!" I replied defensively.
"Well of course you do."
She giggled briefly and continued: "I'm sorry; my question was misleading. What is your name?"
"It's Matt – Matthew Schwartz, I live next door."
"Well, Matthew Schwartz, it is my pleasure to meet you. My name is Miss Cogan."
The elderly lady extended her crooked arm. I shook her soft, wrinkled hand. To my surprise, I soon discovered that we shared many interests: plants, trees, wild birds, and art. Walking slowly through the garden, she pointed out the different varieties of plants and trees.
"This one here is a special gift from a bird." She reported, while aiming her crooked finger towards the flowering plant beside her knee. I gazed at its broad green leaves and small violet flowers that cascaded down like a cluster of tiny bells.
"It was started from a seed that traveled over a thousand miles before it reached my garden. It is not native to this part of the country. Another unexpected guest brought it right to this spot."
She chuckled expecting that I would need to know more. The wily schoolmarm had said only enough to bait my curiosity. Confidently, the old pro waited.
"How did this plant get here, Miss Cogan?" She smiled, as I asked. Shifting my weight to the other leg, I waited for her answer.
"It's an interesting story. How would you like to join me for a cup of tea inside?"
"Yes, thank you.”
I tried to sound experienced knowing that it was the first time anyone had ever invited me for tea. The neighborhood rumor that old-lady-Cogan was an evil witch had entirely slipped from my memory.
"I will put on the water."
Miss Cogan escorted me into her house and then to an embroidered burgundy club chair in her living room. Moving very slowly, she tapped and thumped the wooden floors with the hard heals of her laced-up ankle-high black leather shoes. I scanned the room trying to avoid whiffing an unfamiliar aroma, which permeated her cozy cottage. At first, I thought it was the scent of mothballs and homemade chicken soup. Finally, I had to conclude that it was the smell of an old house and an old woman living together for a very long time.
Rays of sunlight passed through the laced curtains into the room. A rainbow reflected off a dangling glass prism from the chandelier and shimmered onto the faded linen tablecloth. Bordering a fieldstone fireplace, shelves of books covered all the surrounding wall. Displayed across the top of the marble mantelpiece were crystal glass figurines. Everything had a special place. I felt honored to be her guest.
"The flowering plant that you asked about came to my garden by a migratory bird. Some birds come back in the spring after spending their winters in the warm south."
Miss Cogan paused during her explanation, poured the tea, and then continued speaking.
"That plant is actually a flowering weed and grows wild in the tropics and some subtropical climates. Tropical climates are different from here; the weather is much warmer in the winter."
"How did the bird bring the plant here?" I repeated my question, wondering if she had forgotten.
"The bird swallowed the seed, migrated up north, and in its droppings the seed found its way into my garden. Did you know that the beautiful islands of Hawaii came about in this same way?"
"No." I answered waiting for her to continue.
"At first, the Islands of Hawaii came from under the sea. Volcanoes beneath the ocean erupted. The molten rock or lava poured into the sea forming hills and mountains. After it cooled, islands of rock jutted out of the water. And then, it took many years for the wind and rain to erode the rock. This volcanic rock crumbled into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually forming rich topsoil. Just like the wild flower in my back yard, a flying bird above left its droppings. In these droppings, there was a seed and it sprouted in the volcanic soil. The seed sprouted and grew into a tree attracting more birds. Over the course of thousands of years and many birds, wonderful flowers, orchids, and even trees covered the islands. And, it all began with one seed from a migrating bird."
On that morning, a new world opened to me. Her fascinating exposition concluded. She smiled at me and said, "a penny for your thoughts."
"One seed can change the world," I replied. Miss Cogan celebrated with a hearty laugh.