Thursday, July 23, 2015

Nana's Garden


     “Give it some Miracle Grow. That’s what I do.”

     That was my Nana’s gardening advice.

     As a kid, I was curious about my grandmother’s penchant for growing fruits and vegetables. Her row house in downtown Pittsburgh had a tiny backyard with no grass. Instead, practically every inch was devoted to growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, green beans, zucchini, basil, and rose bushes. She even had a grape arbor that twined and tangled above the slim gravel parking space out back. This little organic Eden didn’t make any sense to me. It sprouted in the center of what was then a grimy city, where morning announced itself with steamy steel mill smog and afternoon haze smelled like freshly poured pavement. The garden didn’t fit in.

     But I loved it.

     I loved climbing up to the grape vine with my little brother. We’d spend what seemed like hours searching for sweet fruit, daring each other to eat the tiny unripe pellets that we knew would make our bellies hurt. By September, most of the wine grapes were large and pale green, and bursting with a surprising sweetness. I was too young to remember whether or not my grandfather used these grapes to make his homemade wine every year. I do remember that my grandmother later used his wine as salad vinegar.

     I loved the smell of tomatoes on the vine. The pungent spice of the leaves and stems, the leathery smoothness of the fruit. My grandmother had to remind me several times a day not to pick the green tomatoes. They were so tempting!  A child can learn patience through the slow reddening of a tomato, and what sweet reward to those who master the art of waiting.

     I loved snapping the ends off of freshly picked beans. Sitting at the kitchen table with my Nana and a gaggle of neighborhood women. Their broken English chatter was background noise to the click and pop of vegetables being readied and tossed into a large plastic bowl.  Nana would later dress the velvety beans with garlic, green olive oil, and a little salt. They didn’t last long. Green bean salad was a family favorite in late summer.

     After my grandmother died, I visited the place where she was raised in the South of Italy. I walked the crag of road to see the dilapidated rubble that was once her home. Her family had had no running water. No electricity.

     But they’d had a garden and a farm. And for this, they’d eaten like kings.

     Most of the mountain towns in Calabria are still awash in poverty, but their gardens are lush. Tomatoes dry atop milk crates that sit on broken cement steps. Baskets of fat eggplants and zucchini color the ochre stone stairwells in between dark tenements with dented doorways. The contrast is stark, but it helped me make sense of my grandmother’s little patch of green paradise in downtown Pittsburgh. 

     As a child in the mountains of Calabria, she’d had practically nothing. As an adult in the “land of milk and honey,” she still struggled. Raising seven children in a tiny house on her husband’s meager salary was not an easy feat. She did it though, and the family that has bloomed from the passionate work of her heart is even more beautiful than the garden she tended so carefully with her wrinkled fingers. I know she is smiling down from Heaven at the crazy lot of us. From seven children, she now has thirteen grandkids and seven great grandkids. When we are all together, we twine and tangle around each other like the grapevines upon which my brother and I once played. Some of us are spicy, and some are sweet, and when tossed together, we are a colorful bunch. We love each other, because she loved us enough to tend first to family. She was an amazing gardener.

     Of plants and of people.

     A miracle grower, of sorts.

     I can only pray that I’ve inherited just a smidge of her green thumb.

     I have my own garden now. I’ve planted some of the same things my grandmother did. I’ve also tried a few new veggies, like Brussels sprouts. They’re doing okay, after a bit of a war with cabbage worms that I believe I’ve won. I also accidentally planted a pumpkin plant that I thought was a zucchini. It’s growing, although the space is far too small. It’s twining and vining into my grass, and there are little green pumpkins peeking out from some of the flowers. My kids are thrilled to be able to grow their own Halloween jack o’ lanterns. Hopefully, the pumpkins keep getting bigger and eventually turn orange.

     I’ll try some Miracle Grow.

     After all, that’s what she would have done.


Friday, July 3, 2015

The Writer's Backstory - Tanushree Ghosh

Happy July! As spring has morphed into a cool,wet summer here in Pittsburgh, I have found myself quite enveloped in family time, including birthday celebrations and mini vacations.  I've been taking advantage of the snippets of warmth and sunshine by floating around in our swimming pool.     Several beautiful books have found their way onto my Kindle. And yes, I have carved out a few minutes here and there to write.

Seeking quiet within the noise of summer break is like searching for a lost diamond earring in the pool. Precious writing time is elusive. Still, I try to shut out the slap of the kids' flip-flops as they travel through the halls. I grab hold of  moments in between endless snack-making and camp-driving, even if it's only enough time to scribble (or tap) some notes into my iPhone. Memories of an inspiring three-day writers conference in New York City urge me forward in pursuit of my dreams.

Months after the Algonkian NY Pitch conference, the writers of group C are beginning to see the fruits of our labors. Some of us are on our way to finding the right agent to represent our writing. Others continue to edit and plug away on our manuscripts, utilizing the professional advice and education we received at the conference in March. Today, I am excited to introduce another talented Algonkian writer - Tanushree Ghosh, who has recently been hired to write for Huffington Post! Congratulations Tanu!

Currently working for Intel Corporation as an engineer and engineering manager, Tanu is a mother, an activist, an artist and a writer.  Her education has been primarily in the STEM fields (She has a PhD in Material Science and Chemistry from Cornell University and has worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratories) but she has pursued ‘the arts' defiantly throughout her life and continues to do so. She is an active and past member of several international NGOs and is currently working to open her organization - Her Rights  - to facilitate resource mobilization for women in need.  Her blog posts and stories are in effort to provoke thoughts towards social issues, especially issues concerning women. Immigration and related acculturation is also of close interest to her. The latter is the topic of her first book. She is also a blogger for the Huffington Post.

1. Tell me about yourself. What kind of writing do you do - novels, poetry, screenplays, etc.... When did you start writing and why?

I started with an essay, and then moved to fiction, from what I understand my pieces would fall into the ‘literary’ genre there and now have started contributing to Huffington post as a blogger with mostly essays.  I haven’t ventured into writing a novel yet, but definitely plan to someday. 

2. What are you currently working on?

My biggest project now is my first book, literary fiction, collection of connected cohesive short stories. You can think of the manuscript to be similar in model to recent works like Olive Kitteridge and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. The collection depicts stories of 10 individuals who choose to immigrate to the US are linked to explore the complexities of human ambition placed against the nuances of acculturation. It is titled ‘Under The Seventh Tree.'

3. Do you outline, or do you write by the seat of your pants?

I definitely outline – when I started I took some online courses available through the writing program at MIT which taught me a lot on how to think of an event or a character as a seed and then develop around that. I usually start with an idea, which comes to my head mostly when I am driving interestingly, develop the seed, outline what can happen and then put it to paper (or rather computer to be accurate).

4. What was your impression of the Algonkian Pitch conference, and how did it specifically help you in your journey as a writer?

What I found of most value from the conference is the people I met there. You guys, our Algonkian 14 team, Susan, Michael, Paula – it was a support that had been previously missing for me. Also, unlike a previous conference attended, the sheer size being smaller made for an ambience which was very nurturing and encouraging. 

5. Top 5 books you've read?

God of Small Things, Nandita Naroke (In Bengali, By Late Humayan Ahmed), The City of Joy, Everything by Agatha Christie.

6. Where to find you?

My personal website is, twitter: @thoughtsnrights, I also guest blog for Huffington Post so you can search by my name on Huff Post and get to my blogger archive.