Grandpa’s Garden

These glossy, green globes are a sign of growth, an assurance of a future harvest promised by nature in my little garden bed.  Absent the mature red hue, would you even know they were tomatoes?  I plant them now like Grandpa Joseph did decades ago and Great-Grandpa Angelo nearly a century before that.

Growing up, tomatoes meant homemade sauce and Sunday family dinners all year through.  Grandpa’s precision-spaced rows of plants manicured that perfectly kempt back yard Upstate, his retirement garden in stark contrast to the one at the parsonage of the church he’d pastored in Queens.  Where in his life’s work, he’d shepherded a flock of Italian Pentecostals, Grandpa opted to move to the suburbs of Syracuse when I was born, where he’d tend to vegetable gardens and feed our growing family. 

That is, ironically, the reverse timeline of his father, Angelo, my great-grandfather.  In honor of Father’s Day, I was commissioned to write a tribute to Angelo for my brother’s blog, Embracing Our Roots.  The Story of a Lamplighter tracks his immigrant journey from working the fields of Benevento, Italy to lighting the lamps of New York City in 1912 to hearing the gospel for the first time in 1931 on a subway car and then working as an evangelist, minister, and missionary for the rest of his days.

But always, they kept gardens, even while living in the tightly stacked neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens.  Angelo died when my mom was just a girl, but I don’t have to wonder where Grandpa’s passion for gardening originates.  Having been raised in NYC, Grandpa knew his father as a conductor who worked the swing shift and a pioneer in Christian ministry and kept a garden, not tending his grandparents’ fields in a mountainous region in Campania. 

Agriculture isn’t just an ancestral career path – it’s a way to fill the dinner table, a means of sufficiency.  And out of this sufficiency, they filled their homes with people, fed them, loved them, and served them.  My childhood memories are punctuated with sepia-colored memories like an old film reel capturing the Palmas in Grandpa’s basement making sauce from his tomato harvest.  His wife Santa stirred epic pots on a stove, and if I was lucky, I’d get to do my favorite job of pushing the tomatoes into the old sauce machine that my father had motorized.

Grandpa likely watched Angelo like I watched him as a young girl, fascinated by the noticeable changes in the plants with each visit to the backyard.  There’s something that’s still magical about watching stems grow tall, thick with leaves, then producing flowers and buds with the fruit just peeking out, and seeing the bulbs fatten and change color.  Grandpa would let me be his little helper, and as we walked the rows, he’d teach me about the different plants’ needs for light, water, and nutrients.  It wasn’t magic, just the way of nature.  We plant things, tend them, and then there’s a harvest. 

At least it seemed that way to me with Grandpa’s green thumb setting precedent.  The mortality rate of my prior three years’ attempts tells me experience might play a role in improving seedling life expectancy back there.  The Rubbos were experts at growing good things.  Mom had a little vegetable garden when she and Dad were first married, before we were born.  While she always planted beautiful flowers in the spring and kept color in the window boxes, I think she had her nurturing powers tied up in raising four children in the decades to come. 

This week I got to share a meal with a family from church.  Like Mom, they have four children, each with a subtle glow evidencing light in the soil.  There was a moment between bites of chicken and green beans that my old dreams choked me.  It had been my careful plan, pre-puberty to have four kids, live in a house in a neighborhood in the suburbs, eating dinner every night around a table like this one. 

But it was just a moment of grief, covered quickly in silent prayer, and I was back in the joy of a meal shared with good conversation.  The eldest girl sat beside me, a sweetness to her smile incapable of saccharine, listening as I answered the question of how I’d come to know Christ as my savior.  I was the same age as she was when I got serious about my faith and chose to be baptized.  So much life in twenty-five years… when I was that hopeful girl beside me, I would never have imagined being the single adult at the table.

Six months ago, the subtle evidences of grace shared with that meal would have been overcast by the shadow of my idol.  If you’d asked me what I needed to see on my death bed to feel my life had been well-spent, it would have been children and grandchildren.  During my first conversation with new friend from church back in January, I was wielding a little comic relief to shroud my grief about being alone.  “At least the eggs I get from the grocery store have an expiration date on them,” I said, then pointed to my tummy.  “These ones don’t.  I’m afraid I’m running out of time to be a mom.”

This wise sister wasn’t tempted from seeing the truth to light: “Laura Joy, if it were right and good for you to be a mom right now, you would be a mom.  If it is right and good for you to have a child at fifty, God will open up your womb and give you one.”  Two sentences, one compassionate admonishment, and the hidden altar I’d been worshipping at for years was lit up… and it was ugly.  My life was only worthwhile if my desire to be a wife and mother was fulfilled.  I can’t remember the last birthday that didn’t sound the alarm for my biological clock, but I’d been sent home with a chart and homework to pray about the attribute of God I was struggling with, which I still hadn’t figured out.

When you’re aching for something good to grow from you in your thirties and aren’t married, you might wind up planting tomatoes like I did.  As a child, I enjoyed being caught up in the magic of seeds maturing to bear fruit.  As a woman, I am inside of the miracle, used somehow in the process.  The idea of using my homegrown herbs and veggies in dishes I can prepare for friends and their families delights me, as it has three generations of Rubbos and Palmas.  

But these baby green tomatoes don’t have magic properties.  I’ll eat it and be hungry.  Plants wither and die eventually, whether by time’s passing or storms or draughts, fostered and well-nourished or overgrown and overlooked.  We cannot make water or sunlight.  We plant tiny seeds and follow instructions on how to make them grow well.  If we reap a harvest, we feed the body not because of the fruits of our labor, not because the earth provided enough – no, because God was and is and will be Sufficient.   My pastor would say that God works to make much of what little we surrender, and then gives us more than enough to share with others. My inadequacy binds me to a sufficient Savior.

Everything that grows and dies and when isn’t just the way of nature; it’s implementation of God’s meticulous design.  We think somehow that since we’re tending the seed, be it vegetable or child, that we control whether each lives or dies and when, but the original seed would be the creator of life, a Sovereign God.  He is in control of all things.  I asked my mom what she’d need to feel her life had been worthwhile.  She said, “That my children would know Christ as Lord.”  Mom imagines her father would have had the same answer.  Each child in each generation will make a choice, maybe more than once, to walk with God.  The colorful tapestry, each interweaving strand a story of salvation, like the one I shared the other night at dinner, that young girl beside me. 

Like the theme driven by symbolism in Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, I’m left tonight fully aware that every temporal good thing will end equally, food and family alike.  Since childhood, I saw the family tree going back so far, saw my name there at the end, and wanted branches to come from me, so that I would be a part of a legacy.  Frost’s poem alludes to the story of Adam and Eve, personifying Eden as sinking from grief.  They were the first of men, so could I trace my family tree back to them? They were entrusted with a garden, too, tasked to tend the earth. 

But, isn’t the author of man also the Creator, the Alpha and Omega, where the beginning and the end are eternally juxtaposed?  Adam and Eve weren’t first.  They are names that point to a promised Savior.  God is first above all things, and His supremacy positions me inside an infinite family tree connecting me, on that lonely branch, directly to my Father in heaven.  By living out a season mediating on who God really is, His grace to me has been seeing His sufficient and sovereign hand.

But tonight, it’s His supremacy that silences me.  At the end of this life, will I be a name that pointed to eternal life? Somehow last night, I found my way back to a journal entry I wrote at fourteen, a year older than that sweet girl sitting beside me the other night, budding with promise.  It was two months before Grandpa’s battle with cancer brought him home to the Father.   

December 22, 1997

I offer my life!  All that I am, all that I have, I lay them down before you, O Lord, all my regrets, all my acclaims, the joy, and the pain, I’m making them yours.  Everything I’ve been through, use it for your glory.  I’m offering my days to you as a pleasing sacrifice. 

Things in the past, things yet unseen, wishes and dreams yet to come true, all of my hopes, all of my plans, my heart and my hands are lifted to you.  What can we give that you have not given? 

What do we have that’s not already yours?  All we possess are these lives we’re living, and that’s what we give to you Lord.

And in the silence, I’m praying those words again now.  Over and over. 

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