by Sara Germanotta
If you’re looking for my father during the summer months, odds are you’ll find him wandering the neat, carefully- tilled rows of vegetables, fruit trees and herbs in his backyard garden. Like many Italians, my 76-year-old father wakes up at the crack of dawn, puts on his straw hat and running shoes and heads into his beloved giardino. There, he’ll spend hours watering, pruning, weeding and admiring his plants. By the sweat of his brow, my father has turned a once-empty field into a flourishing garden. “I love doing my garden,” he explains in his heavily Italian-accented English. “It’s a lot of hard work but—like anything in life—if you love to do it, it’s not work.”
It turns out you can learn a lot about life by taking a stroll through the garden with your Italian father or nonno: the values of hard work and perseverance, patience, generosity and pride. It’ll also teach you, as many an unlucky marmot or squirrel has learned, not to pinch an apple or a tomato from Nonno Vincenzo’s garden—he counts them daily and he will notice.
My father is also pretty protective of his poultry, teaching his grandchildren how to save table scraps to feed the chickens and carefully collect their freshly-laid eggs. He was doing the whole urban chicken thing long before it became a hipster trend. My mother loves to tell the story of the first time my father came home with live chickens.We were living in a duplex in Montreal-North and my parents had just bought the large plot of land in the suburbs where they currently live. It was early spring and still too cold for the 99 chicks my father had purchased to be housed in the barn on our newly-acquired land. So, until the weather improved, he decided to keep them in a plastic kiddie wading pool in our garage, covered with a bedsheet and kept warm with a heat lamp. Turns out, baby chicks grow into jumping, squawking, medium-sized chickens pretty fast. My mother was not amused. “The chicks started jumping out of the pool and wandering all over the garage,” remembers my mom, who laughs about the situation now. “And the smell, the smell was infernal.”
Seeing the great lengths my father has gone to grow and maintain his garden and small farm over the years, I’ve often wondered what motivates him to do this back-breaking work. Like many Italian immigrants, he comes from an agricultural background. My grandparents worked the land in Sicily, growing their own wheat, citrus fruits and vegetables. “My parents didn’t have a lot of money,” my father explains, “but my mother always said that as long as we could grow our own food, we would never go hungry.”
My father often talks about how my grandmother would buy a piglet in January and spend the year fattening it up for Christmas. “When the pig was slaughtered, we had to give most of it away to pay our debts,” he says. “For Christmas dinner, we each got one meatball and one small piece of lard.”
Although my father’s humble upbringing taught him the importance of gardening for survival, as well as a deep appreciation for how food gets on the table, it is his nostalgia for his birth country that motivates him to keep these traditions alive in Canada.
Anyone who drops by my parents’ house during the summer will not leave without a grand tour of the garden, a basket full of fresh fruits and vegetables and a dozen eggs. My children are growing to appreciate the bounty of Nonno Vincenzo’s garden as well; my sons love to roam his fields in search of ripe raspberries and figs. “It makes me so happy to spend time with my grandkids in my garden,” says my dad. “It’s part of the Italian tradition to grow your own food and share with people you love. I want them to be able to grow their own figs, eggplant and tomatoes one day and to show their children what nonno taught them.”