I grew up living next door to my Grandmother. I can remember being small enough to stand on a chair at her kitchen sink as she taught me how to wash dishes. Her kitchen was the largest room in the house, and whenever she baked bread, everyone could smell it outside.
Unlike the majority of Italian immigrant women, Grandma did not spend most of her day in the kitchen. Instead, she spent all day in her beloved garden, which took up the entire back yard. It was such a comforting, familiar sight for me to look over from my yard, and see that familiar shape of her, bent over, in her garden.
She used to stay outside from morning till night, and if she could, she probably would have slept out there. So many times, I remember my Grandpa coming home, and after working all day plastering, he would find my Grandma in her garden. “Carmella,” he’d call, “What’s for dinner?” Of course, that was the last thing on Grandma’s mind, so she would quickly gather up some fresh greens and tomatoes, maybe some peas, and walk back up to the house, to prepare a dinner of greens and eggs. Sometimes she would pick dandelion leaves, and make a salad with them. Almost everyone I knew considered these weeds, but Grandma could make them taste good with the right amount of olive oil and vinegar.
Although Grandma couldn’t read or write, she taught me so many things which were much more valuable. She was such a loving Grandma, with her warm smile and generous spirit. My Mom used to send me over to her garden in the late afternoon to pick some fresh vegetables for dinner. As I was running to her yard, I’d call to her, “Grandma, I’m coming for the Swiss chard.” After she heard me, she would stand upright, giving me her great big smile, and using her hand, signal me to keep coming. She would help me pick the large dark green stalks of Swiss chard, which we would eat at dinner, half an hour later. Swiss chard is another of those somewhat bitter leafy greens, which tastes great with a little salt. To this day, whenever I have Swiss chard, my thoughts go immediately to my Grandma.
Grandma could grow anything in that garden of hers. She kept seeds in the pockets of her housedress (she never wore slacks, always a housedress and stockings), and she scattered them everywhere, and they would grow. She kept a huge barrel filled with water and used it to get water for the plants she nurtured in a homemade horizontal greenhouse. For everything else, she kept a long hose, so she could properly water the rest of her plants. I can still smell the mint that surrounded a lot of the other vegetables, and she’d tear off a piece, and encourage me to smell it. She even had pansies growing in between the beans and peas.
It wasn’t until many years later when Grandma was no longer on this earth, and I had children of my own, that I learned the reason she so loved her garden. When she lived in Italy, she never owned any land, and she worked as a farmer, or peasant, for a landowner. This was her life, working all day in someone else’s fields, tending to the crops that were not hers. When she and my Grandfather came to this country, and eventually were able to afford to buy some property, she was thrilled beyond belief to have her own garden.
This past year, for the first time, I planted my own garden, not sure if anything would grow. I prepared the soil with a combination of topsoil and manure, and laid out a small area, about six by eight feet. I planted a few tomato plants, a basil plant and some basil seeds, some parsley, and some arugula. Arugula is a somewhat bitter lettuce type of green used in salads, and tastes wonderful with some Balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
To my amazement and joy, in less than a week, small green seedlings began to appear from the arugula seeds. A week later the same thing happened with the basil and parsley seeds. In the meantime my tomato plants and one basil plant were doing well. Every day I watered them, and every week or two, gave them some fertilizer. The entire time, week after week, I was inspired by the memory of my Grandmother, and I was smiling to myself with memories from 50 years ago.
When I could pick my first arugula leaves and make a salad form them, I was ecstatic! I think now I understand a little more the feeling that Grandma had when she was in that garden of hers. I only wish my Grandma could be here now, so I could call to her and say, “Grandma, look what is growing in my garden!”