catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 10 :: 2014.05.16 — 2014.05.29



Could you trace my family lineage through the generations by their gardens?  On each side, going back beyond recollection, is the cultivation of growing things. Across continents and oceans, from place to place, seeds, plants and memories have been shared.  You see, gardening is in my blood.

I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap, wreathed in pipe smoke.  He smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, but not when I sat with him.  It was his neighbor, a fat man with a shiny, bald head who smoked the pipe and I loved how it smelled.  Their voices rumbled in Italian and the mellow pipe smoke smell blended with the cider-y smell of the apples that had fallen to the ground around Grandpa’s little orchard.  My grandfather had come over from Roccascalegna, Italy as a teenager.  I never asked where he had learned to garden — he died when I was 13 — but I remember his garden planted on a long, narrow lot on South Second Street in Greenville, Pennsylvania.  The land sloped down to the Little Shenango River and it had room for a big garden, a chicken coop, and up near the house, an orchard of apple and pear trees.  Grandpa had startling blue eyes and a reputation for being a grouch by the time I came along (the last of the 12 grandchildren just a few years before the great grandchildren).  But I loved him dearly and my memories of him are bound up with the smell of growing things, the dusty feel of earth on his hands, the taste of the homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam my Grandma would make with the thick, ruby stalks from their garden.  My grandparents made fresh, homemade bread each week; they made it together, tying a large pot to a chair to make the kneading easier.  That bread, toasted in thick slices and smeared with butter and that jam, are part of me.

My parents bought the property they still live on in eastern Pennsylvania when I was just five or six.  They hated the house, in many ways they still do, but they loved the land.  It’s an acre of good soil on a bluff overlooking a river that reminded my dad of the Little Shenango of his childhood.  Their land was hemmed in by farmland gone to tree and it felt separate and private.  Over the last 36 years they have turned the place into a beautiful sanctuary of trees, flower gardens, patios, water features, garden rooms, bird feeders, and of course a vegetable garden, too.  They were adventurous in their plantings, but of course not everything was a success; the grape arbor, most of the orchard, and the row of white pines have come and gone.  These days, the flower gardens are the main feature and the vegetable garden only has tomatoes and peppers.  My dad is 73 and he remembers how his dad used to start his tomatoes and peppers in cold frames, but he likes to direct sow his now.  All heirlooms, all types and colors: Rainbows, Black Krims, Green Zebras.  Delicious.

My mother is from the south, Virginia and North Carolina.  I called her father “Papa.”  My grandmother did not like my dad; he was Italian, Catholic, a northerner, and in the Navy — really how many strikes could you get? And, oh yeah, he was eight years older.  But he was also very handsome and devoted and when he asked my mom to elope, she might have said no, except her older brother told her she’d be mad to refuse.  They were married in Winchester, Virginia on their way north. As you might imagine, growing up we did not see my mother’s family much.  I do remember Papa and my young uncle, arriving for a visit, the floorboards of their car rolling with watermelons and zucchinis.  A few hundred miles of bumping had not diminished the flavor or texture of those watermelons, the biggest I had ever seen.  He was the son of sharecroppers, one of eleven kids.  Gardening was about survival, but it was also about pride and pleasure.  He died from a heart attack after working in his garden a month after my other grandfather died the very same year, in1985.

My gardening prospects were quite dim as a kid. I hated to be outside in the humid summer days.  Our garden seemed 1,000 miles wide, each row a 100 miles long.  Each summer vacation, we weren’t allowed to play with friends until we had picked a row of peas or green beans each morning.  In the evenings we had to help snap the beans or wash the tomatoes and help can or freeze them for the winter.  I loathed that garden.  It was hot, it was buggy, and there were snakes under the zucchini leaves.  Then I grew up and I left home and I realized that I missed it.  I missed the hot, metallic buzzing sound of the cicadas, the feel of the warm earth under my feet, the taste of fresh sugar snap peas.  I couldn’t wait to buy a house with some land to grow things, because, you see, gardening is in my blood.

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