Rooted in the Past

When my Riverside Park garden was peaking with late-spring color last week, a friend said that I must have learned it—meaning gardening—somewhere. After four years of patience and care—overgrown bushes have been moved and the low-lying tree branches pruned, and flowers and bulbs have multiplied in waves and drifts of color—my garden has come a long way from the scruffy, littered hillside I took on as a park tender four years ago. My friend was right: I did learn this from somewhere, namely my Italian grandmother, who lived next door to my family in Long Branch, N.J.

Nana was born in Little Italy at the turn of the last century, and after a brief stint as a showgirl, settled down to married life on her half-acre, which, by the time I was born, was covered with fruit trees, grape arbors, a cossetted fig tree, a vegetable patch that produced from spring till fall, and, of course, glorious flowers. She was outside from dawn till dusk, in a housedress and apron, tying up her tomatoes with old nylon stockings, weeding, watering, harvesting. I stuck to her like a cheap suit.

In spring, I’d run out after breakfast so she could cut flowers for me to bring to school (the ever-frightening nuns seemed softer with a jar of lilacs on their desks). Nana allowed me to water the vegetables in the early evening, the most choice garden detail. I picked Concord grapes to be put up later in jars, and cut rhubarb stalks, even as I was warned to be careful (those leaves are full of poison and could kill you!). Rather than fading, the memory of being there—with the intoxicating smells and with Nana’s hovering presence—endures even 40 years later.

I sought refuge in the garden on 76th Street when my marriage, after 15 years, was disintegrating. I soon discovered that gardening was the most potent antidepressant, far superior to Zoloft. Maybe it was the physical activity—the completely arduous task of digging up deep-rooted shrubs, for instance—which produces a sweat that is in no way like what you’d pedal out on an elliptical trainer. It’s impossible even to think malicious marital thoughts when you are tracking the sun across the garden on a summer afternoon, noting how the red-leafed heuchera is wilting and needs you to move it, now.

So many of the flowers that I planted were old-fashioned—the pale pink blossoms of the peony and the phlox with its heady perfume so redolent of that old suburban neighborhood—that my garden became the comfort zone my home could no longer provide. The solitude, the elemental physicality of it all, restored more than my patience and good will: It brought back my memories of Nana.

nbutkus@observer.com

Rooted in the Past