Family, Food, and Fellowship

Grandpa Rubbo was a gardening guru. As a young sprite, I’d meander the orderly rows of his tomatoes and cucumbers in the backyard on Birch Road. We had fresh greens with every Sunday Dinner while he was agile. And it was a family affair when we canned tomato sauce in assembly line fashion, from Grandpa’s garden to our table for seasons to come.

My mother’s father sowed a seed in my dreams, too; that’s why I wrote #17 on my Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties list: Grow a vegetable garden. Grammy Palma modeled the yard landscaped by hand with flourishing blossoms throughout. Just as my garden make-over project last spring in the front yard had me imagining her beside me in the dirt, my first attempt at starting a vegetable garden saw Grandpa beside me, coaching me with specific distances in inches for each seed to be planted.


I can’t cross this one off my bucket list just yet, though. It stipulates that I have to grow a garden, not merely plant one. Not only will that take time, but there’s no assurance the seeds will even take root. Not fifteen minutes after I’d finished planting in a beautiful spring heat, the sky opened up, setting loose an unexpected, ominous storm. Then this morning, I was chasing a pair of hungry sparrows out of the newly sown bed in my backyard. What if the slight shift in the course of the sun or the growth of the trees reduces the sunlight in weeks to come?

I remember feeling the same way when I planted my evening glories last year: hope for the best, expect the worst (that way you’re sometimes grateful but never disappointed). When the first of the seeds to take root finally broke through the soil, tiny green faces smiling up at me, I imagined what they would become. When the first blossom shot open and shouted beauty during a writing night, I conceded my imagination had fallen flat. As Grammy’s morning glories glorified the sunrise, so my evening glories served the sunset.

I hope that my vegetables will thrive like Grandpa’s did, but I don’t expect them to. He developed and honed this craft for years. Grandpa was precise, dependable, and brilliant. A foreman at a printing press by day and an Italian Pentecostal minister by night, it seemed there was no limit to his abilities. I knew him after his Queens’ years; when I was born, Grandpa moved Upstate, bought our house, and made it a home. We moved into a bigger house; Mom knew I would need my own room.

That man could pray. He would have been too focused on his Christian mission to realize that he was a captivating orator. I had just turned fifteen when Grandpa lost a battle with stomach cancer. They’d had to remove portions of his stomach, and Mom believes that he lost the will to live when he could no longer eat and his only form of nourishment came through a tube. I was old enough to grieve him, old enough to know how much I’d miss his prayers at Sunday Dinner.

It would take me nearly two more decades to find myself moved to tears late on a May Monday evening, remembering those fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, hankering for a taste of our homemade sauce by the spoonful while it simmered on the stove in Grandpa’s basement. I am old enough now to know that his dedication to toiling in the garden was an equal investment to the joy he gleaned from filling our table with his bounty, fresh food for the Italian family.

Italians marry the three F’s as a foundation for any gathering worth having: family, food, and fellowship. Like making pasta sauce, eating was a family affair in my home. At breakfast, we’d gather around the kitchen table for our Pops and Eggo Waffles, the scene on the TV evolving from cartoons to Sports Center. At dinner, we’d gather around the dining room table for a home-cooked meal. Mostly, it was my mother behind the apron, but my father could willingly jump in and whip up some masterpieces.

Since Thursday was his day off, Dad would prepare and serve homemade pizza that night every week when I was in high school. On Sundays, the grandparents would join us for an early afternoon meal of an infinite array of pasta cuisine. We didn’t eat dinner in front of the TV. These meals were for celebrating first, in prayer, the One who had provided for us. We then celebrated each other, sharing highlights of the day. We even did a family Bible Study after dinner for awhile, still gathered around Mom’s keenly adorned table.

It really isn’t any wonder that when facing the reality that he would never taste another bite of gnocci or Ascioti’s meatballs or his vegetables or pasta sauce, Grandpa lost heart. Family, food, and fellowship. That’s our reality, not weakly gripping the iron rails of an ICU hospital bed, struggling for words. He was a brilliant orator, a strong Italian man. He thrived on the pulpit, in his garden, and at the table.   In the absence of food, I think God stirred up in my grandfather a longing for heaven, for fullness of life free from the entrapments of his failing body.

When I was hoeing and digging, preparing the soil, I realized what backbreaking labor Grandpa had endured all those years to bless us. But I imagine that he was at home in the garden as I am, delighted when a miniscule globe planted in rich earth grows and turns into something more. And as my imagination fell flat with my evening glories, I will be pleasantly delighted if my vision for a vegetable garden like Grandpa’s was falls flat and ends up yielding fresh greens all summer long.

I planted some seedlings; however, most of the bed is filled with seeds that have a long journey ahead before showing signs of life. My herb garden has found some success, boasting parsley, oregano, and basil. The last of my azaleas are in bloom. The fuchsia baskets, impatiens, and begonias are full of color. The dozen red blossoms of my knockout roses please me every time I pass by. But I knew from experience that they would thrive.

That’s not the case for new plants. Charming’s mother gave me some seeds on Easter after dinner. By the time I put them in the ground, I’d completely forgotten what they were. In only five days’ time, there was a row of green foliage. She told me then that they were Cosmos, and that they would grow tall and have bright flowers. New life excites me. My vegetable garden will be a similar plant-and-hope-for-the-best adventure, and if I start to see signs of life in my backyard, I’ll start dreaming of bringing the fresh greens to Sunday Dinner myself.

For Italians, it’s about family, food, and fellowship, and we welcome friends and acquaintances alike to our table to share in the trio of blessings. When Charming visits on the weekend, I relish the chance to prepare home-cooked meals like my mother did and feel the same return on investment as my grandfather did when Charming offers a satisfied smile. When he’s not here, my brother and sister-in-law open their table to me and we converse over pasta and meat sauce.

Grandpa Rubbo and Grammy Palma had a lot in common. They served the Lord. They cherished their families. They loved their gardens. And where these three meet, they blessed us. While they were sowing their love of gardening in me, they were also stirring in me a fervor for God and for family.

On the weeknights when I’m alone, I eat at the computer over schoolwork or Netflix. If it’s too quiet, I rock a Pandora station to cut through the silence, the ambient sound absent a husband or fussing children to gather around a table. I can imagine a family tucked in bed inside the house behind me as I write, but like with my evening glories, I hope to find that my imagination falls flat.

That my visions of fresh food from the garden and fellowship with a family of my own will not compare to the reality in store. Or that like God replaced Grandpa’s longing for food with a longing for heaven, God will stir up in me a different longing for my future. If you hope for the best but expect the worst, you’re never disappointed, right?

Still, if and when I pluck the first cucumber off a vine in my yard, I’ll sit at my dining room table and share a meal with my grandfather, his memory now so strong in our shared vegetable garden pursuits that I can almost feel his arms embracing me now, reminding me of the joy in the return on investment.

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