From Generation to Generation
By Lois Guarino Hazel
Gardening is in my genes. When my grandmother (Nonna) arrived from Compobasso, Italy, she and my grandfather settled in a lovely row home in South Philadelphia. The brick-faced two story house featured a sun porch with large windows and lots of green plants. I remember waving to Carmela and Fred, the neighbors on the left, as they or we arrived home or departed through the porch. Nonna’s neighbors on the right cherished their privacy and their blinds were never opened. Both Carmela and Nonna, however, eschewed window coverings; they loved sharing their lives in this old-world way. In Italy, friendships grew on neighboring balconies; in South Philly, the porch or the stoop served well.
Neighbors also fostered bonding and camaraderie on their adjacent “flats.” The flat was a concrete roof over the garage, accessed from the back of the house just off the kitchen. The ascending steps facing you across a narrow walkway took you to the flat. What fun to run up those steps, knowing the iron pipe bordered the flat and would keep you safe from falling to the alley below. Every spring, brightly colored pots would appear and the kids were cautioned not to play in the dirt. Precious seedling tomatoes, basil, parsley, garlic, and flowers—some dainty, some large and trellised—soon turned this city rooftop into a wonderland of scents and colors.
Yes, Nonna had a green thumb. In the heat of a summer Sunday, I or one of my siblings or cousins were dispatched to the flat to pinch a few leaves of basil and a handful of parsley for Nonna’s mouth-watering spaghetti sauce, or “gravy” as South Philadelphia Italians called it.
In the early 1950’s, my father’s commute to his job became long and arduous, so our family migrated to the suburbs in Montgomery County. An acre of land provided ample space for gardens and my mother gloriously rose to the challenge. Not only did she grow the traditional Italian herbs, but crisp lettuces, tender green beans, and occasionally spinach—but always lots of tomatoes. Roma and Big Boy were her specialties. I smile remembering the juice dripping down my chin as I bit into a luscious, ripe, vibrantly red tomato, plucked from the vine and still warm from the summer sun.
But mom’s vegetable garden wasn’t her crowning glory. Her hydrangeas and azaleas were legendary on our block. Passing cars would slow as they drove by. The front of our home always boasted a perfectly groomed lawn, accented with the most magnificent flowering shrubs. How mom forced such an explosion of color still mystifies me. I’ve never been able to quite capture her magic.
I’m a good gardener, though, I say with no false modesty. My first attempt at hydrangeas was a resounding success (not as good as Mom’s—but then, whose were?). I plan to add another bush next season. For me, playing in the dirt soothes and gratifies. From the first crocus to the last blaze of fall foliage, I revel in my garden. Dirt under my fingernails and squishy earth between my toes, sun shining or misting drizzle, I am at home with a trowel in my hand. Stubborn weeds fail to daunt; dry spells or days of torrential rain do not deter. Passed down through generations, my DNA carries the mark of a gardener. Whether exercising my muscles digging dirt and pulling weeds, or feeling my soul lift as the ground produces its bounty, the Good Earth nourishes and sustains me.
Lois Guarino Hazel retired as a project editor from Rodale Press Book Division after 20 years. Her freelance work has appeared in: Sun Magazine (Reader’s Write), and online at 50+SeniorLife.com and StagesofLife.com. Lois writes flash fiction, memoir, essays, poetry and is working on a book of haiku.