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.


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