“Well, when you’re married, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce.” –Tony Soprano
Things began to change after our son was born. Of course, his birth instantly and irreversibly transformed our lives, but I am talking about our back yard. In fact, things began to change precisely after my parents joined us from my native Macedonia shortly after the arrival of our son. Like other parents of young immigrants, they wouldn’t think of having their first grandchild placed in day care while still a newborn. They are not against day care; I spent several years reluctantly attending one before I started school. What appalls them is the incredibly short maternity leave one gets in the States, particularly in contrast to the twelve-month paid leave most Macedonian mothers receive. The Macedonian day care centers when I was a child were government-run, affordable, decent places populated by practically all of the young kids in the neighborhood. The ones that didn’t go to day care were watched by their grandparents. I can’t help feeling a little envious of my Macedonian friends’ generous maternity leaves and enthusiastic relatives living in close proximity.
My folks immersed themselves in grandparenthood with both ease and vigor. The baby was fed, changed, burped, taken for walks, powdered, sang to, kissed, hugged, put down to nap, bathed and worshiped according to a precise and mysterious schedule set up by my mother. My dad became her faithful assistant, always available, never truly getting nor expecting credit for his share of household work or baby-tending. Their love for that baby boy was so abundant, the house could not contain it any longer. They started a vegetable garden.
Like all things about to get out of control, gardening started innocently—with parsley. We live in Lawrenceville, a city neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The yard, as far as city yards go, is smallish but functional. We have a patch of grass to mow, hedges to trim, and two terraced areas to weed, all of which can be done in a matter of an hour while filling us with homeownership pride and sense of accomplishment. We planted parsley in one corner of the yard, and it grew profusely. My mom kept carefully scissoring off the leafy tops, washing and drying them, and adding the dried herb to a large glass jar. Harmless. Next, my dad volunteered to build a fence along the width of the yard, facing the back alley. He said he wanted to shield us from the back-alley action, and there is certainly plenty of it: moving trucks, Rent-a-Center delivery vans, 3 a.m. fights over whether one’s love triangle was working out. How reasonable, we thought, and helped him stain it a rich honey brown. Shortly after, he ripped up all the decorative shrubs in the upper terrace and wrapped them in tight bundles. Despite the city’s strict policy not to collect yard refuse, the garbage collectors agreed to pick them up, charmed by my dad’s benevolent smile and his offers of cold beer in his rudimentary English. That spring, my parents planted peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes where the shrubs used to be. They inspected every neat row in the morning, looking for imperfections, weeding, watering and pruning with the same sense of purpose and pleasure they applied to the caring of their grandson. The garden was a great time-killing project for a retired couple, we thought. We enjoyed shopska salata (tomato, pepper, onion, feta) almost every night that summer, and grilled an inordinate amount of peppers, served with chopped garlic, parsley and sea salt, feeling mildly superior for avoiding the grocery store and their tired, stickered offerings.
One morning the following spring, I found a small mound of what looked like awfully old potatoes in one corner of the patio, and my mother triumphantly waiving a small garden hoe near the hedges. It took me a minute to put two and two together:
–Mom, are these tulip bulbs?
–I don’t know. Why? What do you need them for?
–Those are my tulips!
–You can’t eat tulips. I’m putting extra tomato plants against the hedge. They’ll get great sun here.
–Hand me those stakes now.
Peonies, azaleas, hostas, chrysanthemums, pachysandras, tulips—that’s a language my mother doesn’t speak. What she is interested in is tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, leeks, and parsley. What she also doesn’t speak is English, which in no way prevents her from chatting with the college students across the street, even though their conversations consist of mainly pointing at various edible plants, watering cans and gardening tools. They exchange homemade remedies for common plant ailments; I learned that sprinkling the plant leaves with water in which you boiled garlic rids them of aphids; it may also protect your house from vampires or, for that matter, conventional human visitors. The neighbors’ gardening philosophy differs slightly from my mom’s; they are urban types in black cutoffs and asymmetrical haircuts, endlessly biking places and planting raspberries and habaneros in pots on the sidewalk, as a political statement. My mom is not interested in food trends and social movements. All she wants to make is dinner.
A recurring theme in my conversations with my mother-in-law is how we understand the concepts of space and time in the context of our particular national backgrounds. Americans are all about space, needing lots of it, both figuratively and metaphorically. America is a vast country, after all, taking up a better half of a continent. Macedonia is slightly larger than the state of Vermont. Perhaps because they come from a country where space is a valuable commodity, my parents can’t fathom it being wasted on pristine lawns in the perfect shade of green, the dream of many American homeowners. A few years ago, we went to a friend’s house for his annual Fourth of July picnic. Anton has an acre of lawn and a riding lawnmower, a source of great envy for my husband. Obviously, my husband is American.
–Nice yard. Very nice yard—my father says.
–Look at this space. Lovely—my mother agrees.
–Why don’t they put some peach trees, right over here. Or apple trees.
–Some fresh fruit for their kids would be nice.
–Or a vegetable garden, right behind the swing set—my father offers his agricultural expertise
—some peppers, cucumbers, lettuce? Why buy the stuff…
–All this space and they don’t grow anything? My mother sighs, as if she has been writing Anton’s mortgage check each month, yet he turned out to be such a disappointment. By the time we leave, they have the whole yard mentally transformed into the Garden of Eden, but with more zucchini.
If they couldn’t make Anton grow some food, they were just going to plant more in our yard. Off went the rose bushes, no longer taking up precious space where parsley and cilantro could grow. I had to beg for the cilantro. It is not a part of my mom’s culinary repertoire, so she saw no need to accommodate it. That same spring, we lost about two feet of lawn, giving way to leeks. Leek and feta pies, leek and dried red pepper salad with olives, leek and potato soup, fried leeks with eggs—they all ensure one’s Macedonian citizenship remains secure. I was lobbied relentlessly to have just a few things growing in the front yard—where my as yet intact irises grow—but I said no, and I’ve been holding my ground, so to speak. I don’t know if it is her Old-World mentality of making something out of nothing, or sheer discipline and drive, but if someone is wise enough to put my mom in charge of tackling world hunger, I am certain she would be a great success, if only our property was a bit bigger.
For many gardeners, connecting with nature and watching something grow is a spiritual journey of sort. Not so much for my folks. They have taken gardening so seriously, they would not allow anything to come between them and their agricultural success. One morning, I came into the kitchen only to find my parents hovering over golden seeds gathered in small piles on the kitchen table.
–These are from your grandma’s peppers—my mom gazed lovingly at the seeds. Now is the time to plant them.
–You know it’s illegal to bring in seeds from abroad.
–Yes, it says on the customs declaration form.
–Well, you know I can’t read those things.
My mother, an international woman of crime.
My dad’s transformation was more worrisome. He contemplated murder. Once he prepared the terraces for planting, a neighborhood cat decided to use it as an oversized litter box. Dad would wake at dawn, armed with his grandson’s water pistol, and sip his coffee on the back patio, waiting for the culprit. On more aggressive mornings, he upgraded to a water hose. The cat still kept doing what cats must do. Urgent phone calls were made to my parent’s friend in Macedonia; she proposed filling up plastic bottles with water and placing them around the garden. Supposedly, most cats are frightened by their own distorted reflection in the water bottles, but not our new friend. Dad continued his morning guard. He wanted me to call the humane society. He repeatedly, and rather loudly, considered feeding the cat poisoned tuna. For the first time in his life he wished he had a dog. I ran down to the basement and emerged with a dusty metal sculpture of a bulldog. I had bought it a few years earlier from an art student, but I had put it away so the baby wouldn’t get cut on its sharp edges. The dog, metal teeth and all, did its job—perched at the edge of the garden, ears perked up, it forced the cat to reconsider his toilet choices. Art saved that cat’s life.
We’ve been planting a garden for six years now. In late March, my mom and dad start the seeds outside, under a plastic-covered trellis. They transplant the tender seedlings in the freshly dug soil (free of cat droppings) in neat rows sometime in late April. They check on every tiny plant morning and evening. They weed, they water, weed again. They move the plastic owl every few days, as suggested by the leaflet that came with it, to keep the birds away. They stake the tomatoes. Then they go to Macedonia for the summer. They leave us strict instructions as to when to water and break up the rows. We grumble a bit. We don’t have time for gardening duties. We remind them we are not retired. Then we catch ourselves going out every morning and checking up on the garden before we have our coffee. We wait for the pepper plants to flower and for their bottom leaves to get a little yellow before we water them. We re-tie the tomato plants several times as they grow taller. We pick lettuce and bring it to work, to share with our suburban co-workers, owners of very large lawns.
I tie a red ribbon to the first pepper I see, just like my grandmother did. When the tomatoes get so big and juicy their skin starts to burst, I make tomato sauce. I have no recipe. I just do what I have observed my parents do every summer—dip the tomatoes in hot water for a few minutes, fish them out, throw them in the hand-held tomato press, swirl, swirl, until all of the juices run out, repeat. Let the sauce simmer until reduced in half. Add some sea salt. By the time all is said and done, it is after midnight, and I look like Lady Macbeth, splattered in red. When the parents call, first they ask how their grandson is doing, and then how the garden is doing. We e-mail them pictures of both.
I grew up in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. We lived in an apartment building. We had house plants. When I was a little girl, I would spend a couple of weeks each summer at my grandparents’ in the country, tagging along my grandma on her way to water, weed or stake the tomatoes. A true city girl, I found it boring at the time. I looked for four-leaf clovers, examined dead bugs, tossed rocks in the brook nearby, asked again and again if she was almost done. My grandmother always planted basil. She never used it for cooking—she wasn’t much of a cook. She would let it flower, and pick small bunches of it to tuck in her wicker basket. She would pack some food in the basket: cookies, small boxes of Turkish delight, hazelnut wafers, a flask of homemade rakija. She would cover them with a crisp tea towel and join the other old ladies in her village, black headscarves tied tightly under their chins, up the narrow gravel path to the cemetery, to visit the family graves on religious holidays.
In my Pittsburgh garden, basil grows alongside the peppers. I occasionally pick a few leaves, but mostly I let it flower, its gentle scent taking me back to my grandma’s garden and the many summer days I spent there.
Natasha Garrett writes poetry and personal essays, and occasionally translates. Originally from Macedonia, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and works at La Roche College. Her work has been published in Mothers Always Write, Transnational Literature, Arts and Letters and Christian Century. Her book Motherlands was released in 2018.