>Last week marked the 12th anniversary of the death of my father. Dad might have approved of my activities on that day. I was spring cleaning and for the first time since moving into this house I was able to see the floor of my crochet workroom/sweatshop. Gee, nondescript beige carpet. Who knew?
For some reason last week’s cleaning process extended far beyond the limits of what I normally call “straightening up”. In other words, I did not just go through the motions of waving a Swiffer duster and shifting the boxes, bags and stacks of stuff around until I could man-handle the closet doors, cabinets or drawers shut. I actually opened the boxes, bags and waded through the stacks.
At the back of a drawer in a file folder (suddenly I have an overwhelming urge to sing “Among My Souveniers”, the 1959 hit recording by Connie Francis) I found a yellowing newspaper section. It was a Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine (a Sunday supplement) dated 13 July 1986 and I could not think why I saved this thing. Eager for any excuse to stop cleaning I began leafing through the pages and stopped when I got to the “Our Town” column. There in black and yellow was the first piece of professional writing I ever did.
The word “professional” is used here in the broadest of terms. I think I got fifty bucks for this essay. Last week, in that moment of deep nostalgia, on that particular day, having nothing to do with inflation or higher fees, these words were priceless.
I had offered this piece with the title “A Man’s Garden”, but the editor changed it to “Portrait in Green”. No reason given. I did not sign a contract at the time, and no written agreement exists as to the rights to reprint it today, but I’m going to do it anyway. If anyone at the newspaper has a really long memory and has problem with this, I will give them back the fifty bucks, OK?
He wishes he could see it from his doorstep, but it’s a good 200 yards to his garden, the plot we enclosed with chicken wire hung with pie pans to fend off assaults from the Greek family’s goats, rabbits and fowl. Before the bankruptcy of his New Jersey truck farm, my father used to walk me around the 40 acres of his domain, telling me of his visions — Chinese vegetables just leaping from those muddy red beds and into crates bound for Chinatown. Today I wander alone from his “after” home, a rented cottage on a solvent-somebody-else’s farm, in the direction my mother points.
“He always goes out there, ” she sighs. “Now there’s no more football, he never stays inside Saturday, Sunday, all the time outside.”
Through my father’s eyes, this garden bursts with the exotic and the sublime: sweet crisp snow pea pods, pungent Chinese parsley, Chinese broccoli, long beans, water spinach. I see only a wretched, badly sloping corner of land nobody else wants and whose sole bounty is of the igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic variety.
I find him bent over a particularly stubborn weed in the back-breaking process of turning the soil by hand. I have only to imagine on his head a coolie straw hat to see him as he was, a sturdy brown peasant boy learning how to coax vegetables from the earth, long ago in Canton province. The dirt-floor shack that sheltered him and eight brothers and sisters also housed the pigs.
“Oh, those pigs, they were like money for us,” he once told me. “We took them inside every night. All animals were very valuable.”
“You kept pigs as pets?” I asked. We kids had been lobbying for a dog in those days and wondered why we never met with much success.
“Nobody in China had pets!” he would snort. “If the animals don’t help you grow food or you can’t eat them, they’re no use.”
“Didn’t you have any pets at all?” I hoped, still trying.
“We used to play with the water buffalo,” he said, mischief animating his old/young face. “The smaller village boys like me, our job in the paddies was to take care of the water buffalo. They were big but not too stable. If you got on their sides, you could push them right over. Ay-ah, those legs, not too stable sideways.”
Today I swing open the chicken-wire gate and wish my father didn’t work so hard on this rock pile.
“At least back in China, you had water buffalos to plow the fields. Why don’t you rent a Rototiller?”
He straightens, and in his crinkled eyes I see fire. “I went down to that renting place. They want $60 dollars a day for one of those things. For $60, I can buy vegetables all summer. What I need that for?” He shrugs. “I can still work. I do it myself.”
And in that moment of perverse pride I can see a rice paddy, a village boy and the smile he has on his face, having just pushed over his first water buffalo.