52: Nona’s Garden

52: Nona’s Garden

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great

Nona’s Garden

When my grandparents emigrated from Italy to this country, they joined the rest of their clan who’d already settled in the small town of Oelwein, Iowa. Here the men had found jobs working for the railroad. Because most of Oelwein’s population was of German descent, the newcomers had a hard time fitting in. So, to give them a sense of community and belonging until they “learned the ropes,” the heads of each family pooled their money and bought a square city block of homes.

In Italy, my people had loved their gardens. So when they settled into their new homes, the backyard fences came down and all that open space became flower and vegetable gardens. Cobbled pathways connected each house, while grape arbors provided shade, fruit and wine.

“What’s wrong?” Nona, my grandmother, asked me one day when she caught me sulking in my room.

“Nothing,” I said, not wanting to tell. The truth was too painful. I was tired of being the brunt of jokes at the playground. Tired of being the “different” girl everybody picked on because of my dark coloring and simple, handmade clothes.

“You got nothing to do?” she said. “Then you come with me. Maybe you learn something today.”

There was no saying “no” to Nona. I knew she knew what was wrong, and it was lesson time. I set my stubborn jaw and followed her downstairs where she snatched up her basket and garden shears. “You come,” she said again.

We headed toward the herb garden first, a sunny spot that butted up against Zia Amalia’s zucchini patch.

“See here?” Nona said, pointing to a thick bush, its rangy stems lifted toward the sun. “This is oregano.”

Snip went the shears, and a handful of stems and leaves went into the basket. “Look,” she said. “See the leaves? Small. Hardly anything to them.”

She waited for me to nod in agreement.

“Smell.” She rubbed a few teardrop-like oregano leaves between her fingers and wafted them beneath my nose. “Remember the smell,” Nona said.

“Huh?” I blurted, wondering what she meant. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what these plants were already. I’d helped her put the seedlings in the ground last spring.

She moved to the next row of bushes, like an ambitious bee in search of nectar. “This is rosemary,” she informed me, stooping to clip a lush frond stiff with spiky leaves. Again she crushed a couple of leaves between her fingers and made me inhale the scent. “Remember,” she said.

Next came the basil plants, light green and dew-kissed glossy, their familiar scent the sweetest of all. We repeated the procedure, me wondering if Nona would ever just get to the point and let me go back to my brooding.

“Very different from the other two, eh?” she pointed out, snipping and tossing a few more bunches of basil into her basket. This time she didn’t wait for me to answer. Instead, with me still in reluctant tow, she left the herb plot to gather several ripe tomatoes, a fat-to-near-bursting head of garlic and three purple eggplants.

“We make Melanzani Parmiggiano for supper tonight,” she announced. “Your favorite.”

Back inside the house, Nona tossed me an apron and asked me to rinse off the vegetables. I groaned.

“You got nothing else to do,” she said. “You help me make the supper.”

When the cleaned herbs and produce sat drying on dish towels, Nona said, “We start with the tomatoes. We peel the skins and put them in a pot to simmer. Look,” she said. “They’re very different from the eggplants, no?”

No kidding, I thought. Any dummy can see that.

She peeled and sliced the eggplant in fat rounds, dipped them first in beaten egg and then in seasoned bread crumbs, then fried them till golden in olive oil flavored with the fresh garlic we’d picked. After laying them flat in a baking dish, she turned her attention back to the simmering tomatoes.

“Now we add the herbs,” she said, showing me what to do and how to do it. We stripped the leaves from the stems of each different herb and put them into three separate piles.

“Take a palmful of basil leaves,” Nona said, then watched carefully as I obeyed. “Rub them between your hands and toss them in the pot. Bene. Don’t it make your hands smell good? Now the oregano. Rub those, too. See how tiny the leaves are? Che bellezza! Different smell, eh?”

Helplessly, I looked at her and shrugged my shoulders.

“Toss.”

I did.

“And now the rosemary,” she winked. “Just a little kiss from Signorina Rosemary. Smell how strong her breath is?” Nona smiled at my groan. “Good. This dish gonna be perfect. Toss.”

I helped her slice the cheeses and then we assembled the casserole in layers of eggplant, cheese and tomato sauce.

And somewhere along the line, much to my amazement, I realized I was enjoying myself.

That evening after the blessing, Nona served the dish we’d made. The casserole’s aroma settled around the table like perfume from heaven. My family dug in.

“Well,” Nona said, her bright brown eyes snagging mine as I chewed my first hefty mouthful. “What did you learn today, granddaughter?”

“I don’t know, Nona. What did I learn?” I teased. Of course I’d learned a lesson today, and she knew me well enough to know I’d gotten her point long before we’d finished preparing supper.

“Okay, smart girl, I tell you. Every person in my garden different,” she said.

I giggled. To Nona, plants had personalities, lives uniquely theirs, just like people.

“Nobody the same as nobody else, see? But when you and me put everybody together today, we got something special. Something delicious.”

“Yeah, we did,” I admitted, a rush of emotion pooling in my eyes.

And that was the shining moment in which I committed myself to taking joy in every one of the unique differences that made me, me.

“God is very wise,” Nona said. “Remember.”

~Paula L. Silici
Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul

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