When my grandmother was thirteen, she was yanked from the place of her birth, a lush island off Italy’s western coast, a stone’s throw from Amalfi, to immigrate to America. There, she had a rude awakening. Not only were the streets not paved with gold, as a young teen, she was forced to become the sole support of her family of eight, toiling seven days a week with but an hour off to attend Sunday Mass. Many years later, when she’d purchased her second house singlehandedly, after my grandfather became disabled, she cultivated two beautiful and very distinct gardens in the little patches of land front and back of that house.
Now that I look back on the love and care that she poured into those gardens, I wonder if they were her way of reconnecting to her homeland blessed with volcanic soil, abundant produce, and all manner of luxuriant flowers. When I was a child, however, I simply enjoyed the gardens.
The front garden boasted tulips, daffodils, deep blue “snowballs” (hydrangea bushes), two small evergreens, and her signature roses. Although my grandmother never showed any of her blooms formally, they would have snagged First Prize in any competition. She used no Miracle Grow™ or store-bought fertilizer; all she used were table scraps for compost, along with time, effort, and the magic ingredient: love. The flowers were so huge and so gorgeous that, when she allowed me to take a few to the nuns in school, the good Sisters of Mercy assumed that they were fake — they were that perfect! Mortally offended, I set the nuns straight.
However, no such problem existed with my grandmother’s show-stopping roses grown in sherbet colors of candy pink, cherry red, lemon yellow, and tangerine. Wafting their heady scents, the Sisters understood at once that these were genuine. Whether my grandmother’s talent was a reflection of her given name, Rose, I’ll never know. Despite the bounty that the nuns and my family enjoyed, many of the roses were grown for no human nose, and woe betide us if we attempted to sniff those on my grandmother’s watch!
My grandmother was a deeply spiritual woman, spiritual in a practical sense. She was fully convinced that her unwavering faith had interceded to save the lives of not one, not two, but three family members. In manifesting that faith, she reserved the very best blooms for a statue of the Blessed Mother, not in the garden, but in the house. The more roses she cut for the Blessed Mother, the more grew to take their places, somehow even more stunning than their predecessors.
Eventually, my grandfather must have gotten a bit miffed with my grandmother claiming all the glory of that garden. He took himself down to his workshop in the basement one day, and using a drawing he’d asked me to sketch as a guide, fashioned a little wooden donkey drawing a cart. Into the cart went, you guessed it, some of my grandmother’s flowers. Neighbors and strangers alike often stopped in front of the garden to admire the teamwork and handiwork of my talented grandparents.
The garden at the back of the house, however, was a different story. While this was not totally wild, it was a lot closer to an English garden than the carefully manicured plot in front of the house. Red roses of a more plebeian variety climbed and twined profusely about a white wooden trellis that my granddad had constructed and erected at the garden’s entrance. My grandmother didn’t care if I picked these, or the others, creamy with a near-pink center, nearly obliterating the back fence from view. The only thing that made these roses plebeian was their size and form. They were smaller than the show-stoppers, and the petals looser. Freely, they opened their fragrant heads to the sun, displaying golden stamen and serving as playgrounds for the bumblebees, which were frequent visitors.
I hadn’t remembered how very profuse those everyday roses were, until my parents unearthed a photo just this past weekend. The roses were everywhere, dwarfing little old me. But somehow, in that small patch of earth, my grandmother also found room for a large birdbath, a fickle fig tree, some herbs, and squash. Although every inch of soil was maximized, I never really knew what that garden would yield.
The deep yellow-orange flowers of the squash, my grandmother dipped into a secret batter and fried. They were the most delicious snacks on warm summer days. Sprigs of mint growing in the little herb patch went into iced tea (the real, brewed kind), baked fish (yes, and it was superb!), and sautéed squash with garlic, oil, and vinegar, served cold and scrumptious. The figs were the best, when the tree cooperated. Their plump dark skins were but masks for the bright, sweet, moist and delicious fruit!
Brooklyn, New York is not known for its wildlife, but whatever was wild staked a claim to the garden. Once, I spied a cat chasing a squirrel that was, in turn, chasing a bird. The squirrels were clowns and my parents tore their hair out over my antics with them. I’d feed them, you see, and coax them to run along our clothesline until I’d toss a peanut butter sandwich down below, or a handful of walnuts that always seemed to be in our pantry.
Once, I attempted to feed one of the squirrels by hand. I borrowed one of my dad’s thick leather gloves and laid out a trail of nuts leading directly to me … to where I crouched, motionless, with another nut in my outstretched hand.
Over the course of weeks, I repeated this ritual, nut in hand, hand in glove, and squirrel just out of reach. It was always the same squirrel; I grew to recognize him. He came so close that I could count the hairs in his gray-brown coat, but he never trusted me enough to snatch that last nut out of my palm. Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t. I did not understand, then, that it’s not a good idea to tame a wild animal, for too many two-footed animals abound that take pleasure in harming the four-footed.
The gardens are long gone now. I paid a visit to my childhood home about ten years ago, and Tom Wolfe was right: you really can’t go back again. However … after I had moved to New Jersey and buried my beloved grandmother, I dreamed that my family — including my grandfather, who had passed on many years earlier — was gathered in our front garden. My grandmother was not on the scene, and yet, we all sensed her presence and her love. The blooms were even more colorful and fragrant in dream land than they’d been in waking life. And the sense that I got was that my grandmother was asking us all to take care of her garden. Not the physical garden, but the garden of spirituality that had yielded so many blessings for a once poor immigrant Italian girl.