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The fruits of his labor

By JOHN M. ANGELINI
Published June 3, 2007


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My father, raised in the Italian tradition of home farming, was not averse to digging into the soil behind our Bronx tenement to plant and cultivate vegetables, along with a sprinkling of flower seeds to feed the spirit.

It was a challenging time to feed seven children in the Depression. Making ends meet required creativity.

As his fingers nimbly worked seeds into soil, I could imagine our small patch of earth would soon be studded with tomatoes, peppers, string beans, radishes, carrots and zucchini squash.

But Papa's initial attempt was dismal. The vegetables were small, their color drab, their numbers few. That got my father to thinking. I did not yet know it, but I would be part of his plan.

He pondered the soil. Was it deficient in nutrients? Would fertilizer be the solution - and if so, would its cost offset the value of whatever meager crop would be had? For a time, my father seemed at a loss.

One mild spring day, while standing in front of our small, rented house, my father and I watched a caravan of horse-drawn merchant wagons moving slowly down the street. The drivers announced their wares in loud voices. This was a frequent occurrence in our neighborhoods, but this day would be different.

"E grande!" shouted my father.

"What is grand?" I asked.

"Il cavallo, il cavallo, " he answered, looking at a horse and pointing to a pile of manure in the middle of the street dropped by one tired and sad-looking old beast.

My father scanned the street right and left, studying the other horses.

Fearing the worst, I refused to meet his gaze. No, no, no, he wouldn't dream of asking an 11-year-old boy to do what was on his mind, I thought.

He disappeared into the house, returning with a large pail and a coal shovel.

"Oh no, " I said under my breath as he silently handed me the implements. Refusing my father's request was unthinkable. I waited for all the merchants to get out of sight. I looked up and down the street and prayed that nobody would see me. Feeling secure but somewhat hesitant, I scampered to several spots, deftly scooped up the manure and transferred it into the pail, all the while trying to pinch my nose.

I didn't stop until the pail was full and, like a juvenile criminal, ran full speed through the house and into the back yard as my father's "Grazie, Giovanni, " faded behind me. Beads of sweat covered my brow. I whispered, "Why me?" cursing everything that grows.

It was no surprise that I now had a permanent summer job collecting enough manure to fertilize the whole yard at a heavy price to me. I became the butt of my so-called neighborhood friends who, as hoof beats grew louder, seemed to wait in hiding for me and my pail.

I tried to ignore the chorus of voices shouting: "Crap collector, crap collector, how does your garden grow!" accompanied by raucous laughter that echoed up and down the street. I completed my chores with defiance but became an untouchable and lonely kid.

All summer I watched my father, the erudite dress designer, musically talented opera buff and well-spoken gentleman turned farmer, tend to his vegetable garden, distributing "fertilizer" around each plant while he whispered "please, please, " for what he hoped would be a good harvest.

Now being rather invested in all this, I kept watch over the growing garden. Soon I saw squashes hanging low to the ground, blushing tomatoes, bright green peppers. The crop wasn't huge but would feed us for quite a while.

When harvest time arrived my father said to me, with great pride and outstretched arms, "Mio vittoria giardino." He pointed to a plant and allowed me the first pick.

"Really?" I asked.

"Si, Giovanni, si."

With hesitancy I approached a tomato plant as if it were a revered icon. I plucked the reddest one I could find.

Now to confront my tormentors. I walked up the street to greet them. They seemed bewildered by my arrogance until I took a bite out of that beautiful, ripe tomato, which my efforts - and some old, tired but cooperative horses - helped to produce.

We ate well that summer.

John M. Angelini, 85, is a painter and writer living in Hudson.

[Last modified June 2, 2007, 18:45:30]


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