Friday, December 21, 2012

Vegetable Garden- part 1 (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Honor Thy Vegetable Garden

          When we landed in Canada we had but our clothes in one small suitcase and a hundred or so dollars my parents had saved by working the winter and spring in Vienna. We lived near Vancouver in a three-room attic with a view of the mountains and a mandarin orange crate hung out the window for a fridge. But we immediately found a treasure in my stepfather’s great uncle, Feribacsi. He had a place nearby that, even in retrospect, seems like paradise to me. His valley had once been full of small farms, and across the road a chicken farm still lingered, where you could take your battered egg car- ton and come back with it full of eggs, some still warm, some still with bits of straw sticking to the shell. Feribacsi lived with his wife, ildiko, in a small, one-bedroom house, perfectly kept and surrounded by vegetables and flowers, but it was the two acres of land behind the house that I really loved. There, beyond an orchard and an overgrown field, were the woods and, in them, an abandoned chicken coop.

          Many years before there must have been a clearing behind the coop, because there were no trees there, only waves of brambles washing over the roof and pouring in through the windows. One spring evening, Feribacsi announced that if we wanted to have our own vegetable garden, the bramble jungle behind the chicken coop was ours.

          We started hacking on a Sunday morning, my stepfather in the lead wielding a machete, my mother behind him tugging brambles with a rake, and me bringing up the rear with an army shovel, whacking away at berry roots that grew all the way to China. We must have looked laughable; three city slickers who had never touched a tool bigger than a toothbrush in their lives. Every evening after work, we picked up our weapons, and attacked. It was May. The northern evenings were long. There was still light in the sky as we walked home to our attic, tired as dogs but in stitches at my attempts at yodeling like Gene Autry. We slept well. We survived two weeks of hacking, sweating, and yodeling to clear that patch of dirt. Then we turned the soil. My God what soil it was. I was only eleven and knew nothing about humus or fertility, but there was something about that thick, black forest loam, the way it crumbled in your hand, the way its fragrance filled the air.

          We laid out the plant beds straight and even, each as wide as the pick handle was long, then we stomped down the paths to keep the weeds from growing, and then, on the tenth of June, three months to the day after we set foot in the New World, we seeded the black soil of our piece of land.

          For a week, we watered the barren soil each night, then walked home. I never said a word, but I had great doubts that anything would ever emerge from that empty dirt. Then one Saturday it happened. It was hot. The sun was high, the sky clear, and by late afternoon the cedar trees around us gave off a sweet fragrance I had never smelled before. I was near the garage helping Feribacsi wash his maroon 1954 Ford, preparing it for the Sunday drive, when a joyous cry from the chicken coop cut the air. We ran. My stepdad and my mom were leaning over the seeded beds, calling “Look, look!” I squatted by the beds and tilted my head sideways and saw, in the barren earth, lit by the sinking sun, standing in rows like miniature solders, delicate green shoots reaching toward the sky.

          It was a good summer. Dennis Mitchell and I made a fort in a hollowed stump, and in the evenings we watered and weeded our garden. By August it was lush with radishes and parsley and celery and onions; on Sundays, we went fishing in that shallow muddy creek, and to the relief of the whole family, I completely and forever lost my urge to yodel.

          Throughout that fall we were back behind the chicken coop, loading up on fresh corn, and green and yellow peppers, some of them so spicy they brought tears to our eyes, and parsnip and carrots and potatoes, or just sitting on the coop’s steps, still warm from the sun. And even on october evenings, when the northern winter reared its frosty head, that garden kept us together not behind the coop but in the attic kitchen. We canned.

          That piece of earth had provided food to last us through the winter. We spent the evenings gutting peppers, shredding cabbage to be pickled, slicing beets to be boiled, peeling little onions and stuffing them in Mason jars. We built shelves in the low part of the attic, where it was coolest, to house the rows of jars full of more colors and flavors than you can name. And through the winter months the garden remained with us. It was there at dinner each time a jar was opened with a pop, each time we crunched a pickle. It was there as clear as a summer’s day with, “Remember that damned shovel,” or “that huge melon” or “that slug.” it was there through the muddy spring on the cleaned-off kitchen table with the colored bags of seeds and carefully penciled plans of the beds, with so much designated for this, so much for that.

          Vegetable gardens held the family together for years, behind the coop, then behind our tiny house, then later behind the big house we built on a hill. But with each place, with each year it grew a little smaller, and with each place, with each year we grew slowly apart. The only meals we shared those last years were on holidays, and there was just a row of parsley left the year my mother died.

          Whether abandonment of the garden was a cause of the rift between us, or a symptom, who can say. But in those gardens there were special moments: a lot of good ones and probably more bad than I remember, but whatever else those gardens gave us, they gave us common ground. My mother had her own job and my stepfather had his, and I had school and sports and friends, and we all had our own problems, needs, dreams and fears, but in that garden we shared and shared alike, loved it and hated it, weeded, worried, and harvested all together. Perhaps that’s not much, but in a world as chaotic as ours, where ties between us loosened long ago, isolating parents, estranging children, and giving us so little common ground to share, then, at least looking back, that garden seems an island remote from senseless struggles, where not only could we shut the world out, but we could shut ourselves in—alone but together.

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A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit

Stay tuned for a new chapter post next week!

1 comment:

  1. This is my first'read'from A Real Life yet, if the rest of the book is anything like it I'm 'caught'. Thank you from a Vancouverite originally from Ontario & Quebec and struggling to find 'nature'daily.