I thought it was a farm and the land stretched for acres and acres. The hill leading to it from the street was steep and dangerous—a monster to mow and weed. The rows were long and full: bushes of cucumbers and beans, stakes of tomatoes, gnarly freeways of squash vines, bordered by carrot greens, bouquets of mint, and parsley clouds. The plots were enormous and the vegetables endless.
The farm needed to be watered, and my siblings and I made up the workforce. The faucet was in the basement, far from the field, and we didn’t have a hose; instead each of the six children carried various configurations of buckets, watering cans, and plastic pails up the five steps, across the lower third of the hill, under the rose trellis my father meticulously managed, over the chrysanthemum border to the well-defined ruts dividing the vegetables in neat rows tousled with vines.
All summer, day in and day out, we toted water from the big soaking sink with its rusty creaky faucet in the basement, up the wooden stairs, through the lush grass harboring Japanese Beetles and Grasshoppers, to the sweet silt starting to bake in the July heat. The big mouths of the buckets didn’t allow us to water—we poured—forming tide pools of mosquito bait and gnat baths. And we suffered for this, bitten around ankles and up legs, we patched our beaten bodies with the sticky, smelly, sickly coating of calamine lotion.
We weeded, watered, picked, trimmed, retied stakes, and clipped dead leaves while the neighbor kids snapped on their swimsuits and walked across town to Coles Swimming Pool. They splashed and swam, cooling off from the Southwestern Pennsylvania sun, while we burned rings on our necks and pinked up our cheeks.
In the meantime, further back on the land, pears formed jewels in branches above the hitched up swing set; they would plump out at the bottom mirroring my own growing body, which mother said was all derrière. Beyond the pears, the peaches, and green apples, a stand of quince trees divided our property from the alley and the houses out back.
I grew up on a farm, I would say later, that’s why I don’t have a garden now. I put in my time.
The chores carried on into the autumn—after late summer picking, and early fall harvesting of what I would call the orchards, we canned. In that same basement where those distant faucets supplied the child-borne irrigation system was a large stove, a farm table, and shelves of mason jars. In the damp cavern, mother was stationed at the stove and we kids, in an assembly line formation, canned beans, cucumbers, pears, tomatoes, peppers, peaches, mint jelly, quince jelly, and grape jelly, labeled with my mother’s cursive on masking tape. Green Beans, 1962.
Jobs were distributed according to age. My older brothers could do anything that involved knives—quartering pears, slicing cucumbers. My older sister worked the crank of the Foley food mill, smashing tomatoes into paste, a very slow and painful chore. We younger ones clipped the ends off beans and snapped them in half. As soon as we would finish a hill, Mother poured another mountain of beans onto the newspaper that covered the table. Our shoulders ached, we yawned. Occasionally Mother would take the opportunity to drill us in basic Arabic: pot, tundra; parsley, buhtdounis, we repeated with dreary compliance. On more upbeat days, she instigated a sing-along, in which we were more likely to participate, for who can resist “Getting to Know You,” in two-part harmony?
It was ferocious work—tearing at our cramped necks, pulling on our shoulders, flattening our hips to stone. Even as the fifth of six children, I clearly understood the payoff—we would not have many of our essential and important foods without these cans, these vegetables. Parsley and tomatoes in fresh tabouleh, green beans in the fragrant Lubiyeh, mint sparkling in yogurt with cucumber, and my personal favorite: a pocket of my mother’s homemade bread with laban, tomatoes, and scallions. As much as the repetitive and endless chopping, cutting, and peeling killed me, the fruits of our labor were rich. Fattoush didn’t have a piquancy with winter tomatoes from the store, the store-bought cucumbers in the tabouleh were dry and woody; when we wanted kusa mahshee, the only squash we could find were zucchini and the skin was not as supple as our Lebanese-born white squash.
Despite my constant craving for the finely chopped parsley, or slow-simmered eggplant, I have mostly resisted gardens. This farm had worn me out, and while I gave free advice to city gardeners about the sun versus shade, the organic bug killers versus death-to-the-environment, I haven’t plunged a spade, scooped a shovel, or pulled a weed since then.
A few years ago on a trip back east to visit my father in DC, my husband and I rented a car for the epic road trip: the hometowns, the old school, the favorite hiking trail, the university and various apartment buildings where I had written many college papers. When we arrived at the home on the farm, which I found easily, because it was on Main Street, I wandered up and down the front walk in shock. The hill that led to the farmwas barely a bunny slope—with a mild grade that descended gently to the trellis. The farm, the farm was a garden—a big garden, but a garden nonetheless, one I could traverse in probably ten minutes.
Now I do realize that size accounts for something. The little girl saw everything bigger. Everyone experiences shorter distances, smaller buildings when they return as adult selves to old settings. But this I do know: we left that farm in 1966 taking our loot with us and after years of using the dwindling supply of canned vegetables and fruits, we opened the last jar of pears we put up in 1978. The produce was so plentiful, I could only imagine all that food had come from vast acres of land, and the hours we put into the preparation, the canning and the storing resulting in library shelves of jars, all neatly inscribed and catalogued testified to the enormity of our yield.
Standing in my hometown, in front of the green-shingled house, I looked for landscape changes, perhaps extra buildings were put up, covering part of the farm. But there was the house, the shed, the patio, the trellis, the swing set, and the quince border. The current residents had no garden, no farm. They, no doubt, hadn’t squeezed a cherry tomato off the vine while picking the Sunday salad and popped it into their mouths.
Farms, for city dwellers, which I have been since I left the small town life after high school, are romantic, with a vibe of a pastoral, nature-driven life run by the elements—sun, moon, rain, wind, locusts. My notion of our farm, or really, our garden, has become something more intricate—not just a connection to my parents and their past in Lebanon, where they came from an agricultural village. Our farm was where our legacy was seeded, our ways of relating to the world grew on that land.
We had very little money when I was growing up. Further north on Main Street, Mother and Father had a small shoe store, too small to hire a helper, so they ran it themselves. They didn’t know about investments or business practices; they had little savvy in negotiations. However, their gifts were huge: Mother’s love of singing and dancing; Father’s complex knowledge of history and politics. For people of little education, they bestowed us with a need to cultivate—our creativity, our intellect, and our garden. Not just in Poor Richard’s notion, but in Voltaire’s as well.
That land was the secret to giving us a life of plenty. With this garden, they fed nine people every day, very well; they had huge parties on holidays, and they conjured the food that mattered most. Food from our language, from our cultural seedlings; food earned with every impression of the water-bucket handle creased into my palm.
The garden brought the family to the soil, to the plants, to the harvest, to the preservation; to the nutrition and yielded memory that sits in our senses and provides us with a standard that all food is measured against. I accepted the inheritance of cultivation and, while I don’t grow anything, I practice a planting of thought, a seeding of minds, a nurturing of curiosity, a harvest of creativity. I practice the patience that growing demands: planting a word, cultivating a poem. I practice the investment that pays off from gardening: nurturing students and writers to be thinkers and authors. The “fruit” of our labors is not achieved by impatience or indifference, not by propaganda or rhetoric. To produce well is to work tirelessly and to shed light as well as to clear ignorance. This takes a lot of water, a bit of digging, and time. Sometimes it is painful and repetitive and steamy and dark, even indulgent. But once you choose to be a water-bearer, you hold that bucket with the strain of the promise—while it is emptied and filled again and again.
This essay appeared in response to the Question: What are the connections between culture and conscience? Published on 11 November 2016.