A President's Reflections

In praise of gardens and fathers

Posted on June 18, 2010

I grew up on the South Side of Waltham in one of the many multi-family homes that sloped up from the old Waltham Watch Factory and its perch on the bank of the Charles River.  The houses on Crescent Street were packed in tight and all the backywards abutted, usually separated by low chain link fences we routinely vaulted in neighborhood wide games of hide and seek during my childhood.

Those backyard fences were also where our fathers leaned after work, usually with cigarettes in one hand and garden hoses in the other, watering their respective tomato plants and comparing notes about when to prune, best varieties, and that week’s weather and its impact on the plants.  Everyone was a working man — my father a stone mason, and the others a cop, laborer, carpenter, and factory worker.  We had immigrated from Canada in 1960 and to our left was an Italian, Mr Capucci, and to our right was Tony from Portugal, and behind us the cop, Mr. Pappas, a Greek.   Almost everyone had an accent.  All of them had jobs where you showered after work, not before.

Those guys often lingered at the fence on warm summer nights, the glow from their cigarettes giving them away when dusk turned to darkness.  As a kid I didn’t stop to listen in on their conversations, — too boring then,  but the bits and pieces I caught while playing across the yards with their boys often described the places they had left behind.  In our case, we had a simple farm in a hard scrabble Maritimes farming village where even in the 1950s women still made soap from beef tallow and lye and washed clothes by hand.  My mother recalls softening and bleaching flour sacks to sew and make underwear for my sisters.

It wasn’t an easy life, but the men were often nostalgic about it.  I think the women probably had it harder than the men in many ways, so it was easier for the latter to reminisce about the old places in a way I never heard from my mother and the other wives.  The men shared stories of hunting and fishing, of bringing in the hay on hot end-of-summer days, of horses they fondly remembered, and the taste of fruit and vegetables so much richer than the produce we now bought in the market.

Their gardens were a link back to those old agricultural ways, Ithink.  If not their own, for their father’s days and the memories of their childhoods.  Hands in soil, pruning away shoots, and the juice down the chin flavor of a tomato picked and still warmed by the sun, and eaten right there, unwashed, in the midst of the plants — those were the visceral connections they shared.

My father was an excellent gardener.  His tomato plants, a mix of varieties designed to produce early and then right into early September, supplied our table.  We could make a whole meal from sliced garden tomatoes, my mother’s home made bread, and salt.  Even late in his life, he would send us off to our homes, young adults as we were, with a brown bag full of tomatoes.

I’ve planted tomatoes this year for the first time and I’m not sure how good a gardener I’ll prove to be.  I’ll never be his equal to be sure, yet there is value in even a half-failed attempt.  It reminds me of those summer nights so many years ago and of those fathers who knew backbreaking work and sacrifice and who found comfort in soil, a cigarette, and quiet conversation late into the evening. 

My dad was not a model father in the ways we modern fathers worry about, but he was a great father in all the ways that really matter.  He had some basic core values: work hard, don’t cut corners, be honest, take people for who they are , be there for them in times of need, laugh, and love your family.  He cheered for the underdog, distrusted the rich, hated the British (as every Canadian who served under them in WWII did), and relished a good glass (or even a bad glass) of rye whiskey.

My father died in 1997, on Father’s Day.    I think of him pretty often, miss him sometimes, wish he could see the fine young women Emma and Hannah have grown to be (he’d love their spunk and worry endlessly over their adventures).  I never go to his grave site.  It seems a hollow place to me.  But I can’t pass a garden full of tomatos without thinking of how it compares to his.

If I get just one tomato this summer, I promise to sit on the stone wall in our yard some early evening and think about how much he’d love to share a bite.

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