Tata’s Garden

Because my grandfather could not speak proper English, he spoke to us in fragments. Most common of these were: “shut the piazza door,” “take that,” (followed by a thump on the head from thumb and forefinger) and “want a lollipop?” Other times he spoke his native tongue, Italian, over our heads. We called him “Tata,” a rather bastardized form of the word for grandfather in Italian.

Tata, Fiore Dintino, came to the United States from the village of Torre dei Passeri on the east coast of Italy at the age of seventeen. Forty years later, he had a wife, four children, one whom died in WWII, eleven grandchildren and a two story white house in the Italian section of the small New Hampshire town he had settled in. Not only had Tata managed to set himself up nicely, but many relatives as well, including those back in Italy. All this he did on a janitor’s salary, a job he worked for thirty years.

Tata was a small, thin man with skin dark from the sun and coarse from hard work. He was bald on the top of his head with a rim of white hair stretching from ear to ear that my father trimmed on occasional Sunday evenings. Tata sat on the high stool with a look of concentration on his face while my father moved the electric scissors in parallel movement along the thin rim of hair, the cutters buzzing sound echoing through the room.

The most outstanding feature of Tata however was the “edenlike” yard and garden that he had created to surround his house. His garden was an L shaped, three quarters of an acre full of brilliant colors. His manicured yard was a shade lover’s delight containing pear trees, three different kinds of apple trees, raspberry bushes and strawberry plants. Several cast iron benches were placed strategically between bushes and under trees. At the far end of the yard was a large, square trellis the size of a small garage entwined with Concord Grapevines. Inside was a statue of the Virgin Mary. Here we children would gather to organize games of hide and seek or gossip about what the adults had said at the dinner table.

Leading from the street to the back porch was a narrow, black tar path over which hung a trellis plump with more vines of Concord Grapes. In season, the fat fruit would fall down onto the path, splattering it purple-blue.

The garden, never touched by anything mechanical, was a product of only Tata’s hands. The small direct paths between rows of vegetables were always neatly defined and clear of any weed that might try to grow there. At the corner of the L shaped garden stood a small “hutlike” building that we called the “shanty.” In this, Tata stored his garden tools and ripe vegetables. He grew flowers of all colors and varieties that reached an average person’s shoulder by September. Pole beans, zucchini, summer squash, carrots, rows and rows of tomatoes to be canned, escarole, endive, chard, parsley, basil, mint, herbs of all different kinds and more.

Tata was not, however, the only one to reap the benefits of his hard work. At harvest time people would come from all over to collect vegetables from Tata’s garden. For those too shy to ask, he left a crate full of vegetables on the sidewalk in front of the house.

As children, whenever people approached this box we were tempted to run up and watch them. However, we heeded the stern words, “leave them alone,” uttered from Tata, and watched them from where we stood around the yard.

In Tata’s garden we ran and played like squirrels gathering nuts for the winter. Frantically. Freely. Run. Hop. Skip. Jump. Our light cotton dresses and trousers floated in the cool evening air. Flying. Twirling. Whipping in the wind. We pushed each other on the string swing hanging from the sturdiest branch of the apple tree, climbed and collected pears from the uppermost branches, filled sterilized milk cartons with raspberries.

After church every Sunday the whole family—four girls (myself fourth) two younger brothers, and mom and dad—crawled out of the Mercury station wagon onto the sidewalk outside of the house to be greeted by the delicate smell of freshly cooked homemade spaghetti sauce. We’d march single file down the black path (careful not to get purple stains on our white patent leather shoes) right up onto the back porch. The back porch housed an enormous green wooden armchair which Tata frequented in the summer months.

In these months there were three places you could always find Tata, besides bent over in the garden digging up weeds. Either in this armchair, or on one of his benches with his dog, Buttons, at his feet. If none of the above, check the shanty. It seemed that my father knew by instinct where he was because many times he would head straight to the shanty without even looking around. We kids piled into the kitchen where the rest of the family, aunts, uncles, cousins were assembled, preparing for Sunday dinner. We were not allowed to stay in the kitchen long, which we never minded. We bounced outside and ran down the small piece of earth leading to the shanty, flowers of all kinds and colors reaching for and caressing our bare shins. Delectable sweet scents rushed up our noses until we reached the shanty where Dad and Tata were seated across from each other at the small wooden table, two glasses of poured wine between them.

Always, when I barged in there, I felt as though I were interrupting something private. The low hum of serious voices stopped sharp with the sound of my hand on the unstable wooden door. Never did I have my share of snooping around in there either—there was so much to snoop at. The floors we covered with crates of pungently overripe vegetables. Not one inch of the walls was uncovered. On them hung yellowed newspaper sections, garden tools, old skate blades, drying herbs, shirts, old hats, and many other things. I could have stayed there observing all day if it weren’t so small and didn’t smell so bad.

In the winter months there were only two places to locate Tata. One was at the head of the dining room table, usually with a glass of poured homemade wine in front of him. We ran into the dining room after being shoved out of the kitchen and Tata was sitting there. We approached him hesitantly. He pointed to the glass cupboard beside him and signaled for us to remove a glass decanter full of “Dum-Dum” lollipops. Then he opened the jar himself and offered us each one individually. We could not take them ourselves. He had to offer them separately to each of us with, “Want a lollipop?” We grabbed one and ran away. Many times after he gave me the lollipop, before I ran away, he grabbed my arm with what felt like harshness and said something. Rarely I understood him and frequently it was that I just nodded my head and pulled away from him as fast as possible.

If he wasn’t in the dining room, he was in the living room, either just sitting or watching television. He often talked to the television—yelled at it in disgust. One time while babysitting us at our house, the opening of the “Here’s Lucy” show came on. A miniature Lucy doll appeared in front of the curtain and danced with a small spotlight focusing on her. Tata began yelling, “Get that mosquito off the screen,” over and over. All six of us bubbled over with laughter, completely unaware that he was going blind.

In these winter months we were confined to play on the piazza—the glassed in front porch. First we would run through the house until we drove everyone crazy. It was the best house to run in because there were doors on either side of the kitchen, therefore, you could run in one side of the kitchen and out the other. When the grown ups got tired of this (which didn’t take long) we were told to, “go play on the piazza.” It was at the far end of the house and was not the warmest place in the winter but we, sweaty little things that we were, didn’t notice.

Outside of the piazza door was a hallway that led directly to the living room and a staircase going up to the second floor. If left open, there would be a direct draft into the living room. This is why Tata would always yell, “shut the piazza door.” Frightened of him, we’d run back quickly and try not to slam it. Sometimes my brothers would respond with wise cracks and then he’d come after them with thumb and forefinger aimed and snap them on the head saying, “Take that.”

Although I was petrified of Tata in person, I spent many hours staring at the pictures of him on the piazza. One was a picture of him dressed in uniform for WWI. It was encompassed by a huge oval shaped wooden frame. In the picture, Tata wore a tall hat and a half serious, half smiling look. He was young and very handsome, his face free of any wrinkles.

There was another picture on that porch of Tata when he was about seventy-five years old. It was a picture of a long table with a lot of men seated around it smiling out at the camera. In it Tata smiled and displayed a plaque. It was an award given to him by members of the “Italian Society” in our city thanking him for his dedicated hard work in originating this club and lengthy membership thereafter. I stared not only at Tata but at the men around him as well and wondered how they talked to one another.

The third picture was a wedding picture of him and my grandmother, a large brave woman that Tata looked small next to.

There was another picture in that house that I spent half my time there staring at. It was a picture of Christ with his eyes closed, a crown of thorns on his head. It is commonly referred to as “Veronica’s Handkerchief.” I had been told that if I looked at the picture long enough, the eyes would open and look at me. “If you really believe,” I was told, “then it will happen. God knows who has faith and who doesn’t.”

I stared at that picture for hours. Sometimes, I swear that I saw those eyes open. I was never sure if they really did or if I had just imagined it because I wanted them to so badly. On these Sundays we’d amuse ourselves around the yard or in the house until dinner was ready, then we’d all gather around the table for the feast of the week.

Tata sat at the head of the table after going down cellar to draw wine from his barrel—Zinfandel or Muscatel—whichever grape he had chosen that year.

Grace.

Then first course was served: soup with plenty of bread for Tata.

Second course: pasta. “Don’t forget the bread, for Tata.”

Third course: meat and vegetables. “More bread, please, for Tata.”

Last and final: salad. “Enough! Enough! I’ve had enough bread.”

As a child I only wanted to be up and away from the table. I couldn’t understand how the adults could sit around the table for hours drinking and talking.

I looked at my sister, Maria’s, plate and if it was empty, kicked her under the table and out we’d run for more adventures in the glorious greenery awaiting us. It was near dusk and the cool evening air was initially shocking to our small bodies, having come from the warm, overheated, adult world. We played seven up, hop-scotch, chase, hide “n” seek—whatever the day felt like. When it was too dark to stay out, after the evening dew had settled and we were called inside, we fell asleep on the living room floor waiting for our mom and dad to be ready to leave. Another Sunday at Gram and Tata’s. I’d never known anything different.

 

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The day that Tata went into the hospital was quiet. As a child I really didn’t think much of it. Having always seen people return from the hospital

“Never been to a hospital before in his life. Doctors don’t know what to do with him. Keeps getting up out of bed and walking around,” my dad said.

It was December and we’d just had his eightieth birthday party. He sat there quietly unwrapping his gifts. He never said much, smiled a lot though—especially while examining the minutely detailed jackknife that my cousin had given him.

I was ten at the time. A couple of nights later I woke up in a sweat. I had a dream and in it Tata died. I stayed there in the darkness of the room and knew I’d never see him again. I don’t even know him, was all that I could think as I stifled my tears for fear that my sisters with whom I shared the room would discover my grief.

The next day I stayed home sick and was surprised to hear that my brother, Carmine, a year younger than me, wasn’t feeling well either. One didn’t fake sick in my house. It just wasn’t done. If you felt sick in the morning you had to prove it by puking up your breakfast or swearing on a stack of bibles that you had no tests that day.

This day however, my mother didn’t even question it. Carmine and I remained quiet in our beds in separate rooms for the better part of the morning. I listened to my mother putter around downstairs until the five children she babysat for arrived. I loved to listen to the sounds of the morning radio show, my mother’s voice on the telephone, the soft sound the broom bristles whisking across the kitchen floor between thuds of chairs being moved, the iron moving steadily up and down the board – all the sounds of a weekday morning that school child never gets to hear.

At about eleven, Carmine came into my room and we headed down to the living room to watch a game show. The late morning sun shone into the living room making the television difficult to see. I loved that sunlight, the way it shone so strong, making everything seem dull and yellowed next to its power. The way it hit my face, my eyes—making me realize that I was inside and glad for it. Even now, when I see houses in the early afternoon that look like homes, a tinge of envy hits me at the thought of someone inside.

Carmine and I were sitting on separate couches when the phone rang. The five children were in the middle of the room in a circle with LEGO blocks, trucks and dolls strewn around them. My mother was at the ironing board. She moved from it slowly, hesitatingly to pick up the ringing phone.

“Yes. That’s too bad. Just gave out? That’s too bad. Yes, and you? I understand. Who should I call? That’s too bad.” Her voice trailed off into shakiness.

I looked at Carmine

“Tata,” he said.

We sat completely still in our blankets. Mom came in the doorway. “Tata died,” she said. “His heart gave out, just didn’t want to work anymore,” she said, and stepped away.

I felt a tight bubble form right below my Adam’s apple and my cheeks grew wet. Carmine began to cry as well. The children stared at us in wonder. One came up and hugged me. Another picked up a toy gun and began shooting it at Carmine whose face was red and eyes puffy.

“Stop that, now,” Carmine said. But the child continued shooting, this time adding his own sounds in to go with the chick of the gun.

“Get away and leave me alone,” Carmine screamed and began hitting him.”

I ran over and pushed them apart. We sat wrapped in separate blankets huddled in close together in fear, neither quite understanding why.

I realized that my mother suffered. I had seen her cry and show emotions. I knew that she felt things the same way that I did. What I did not realize was how strong she was until that day when I watched her patiently tell everyone who walked through our door what had happened. She stood in the kitchen so tall while people came in and out with condolences. To each child who came in she had to say, “Tata died this morning,” and then comfort them. Carmine and I sat at the table opposite each other with dropped chins watching her. Finally when she said, “Tata died this morning,” for the fifth time my head began to feel like a sore tooth so I left the room.

That night I sat at the dining room table doing homework with my sisters—more laughing and chatting about their days at school than homework. They were “drawing girls” or so they called it. They’d each draw a picture of a girl on her way to school each day of the week with a different outfit for each day. They’d let their voices take on the character’s personality and chat to each other in these voices. I didn’t like this game and so rarely played it with them.

My brothers were in the living room directly off the dining room wrestling in front of the turned on TV. They did that a lot, wrestled during commercials. Mom was cleaning up after dinner in the kitchen. My father came in. He’d been at my grandmother’s all day. I heard bits and pieces of the conversation.

“Eddie Mancini says he saw him, this morning. He was sitting up on the stretcher while they pushed him down the hall. Seemed happy as ever. No one expected it.”

He came into the dining room. He looked tired and serious. We girls stopped talking and stared at him but the boys kept wrestling. He stood in the doorway between the dining room and the living room watching them until suddenly he said, “Cut that out and shut off that damned Boob tube.” We all looked at him. I‘d never seen him this upset.

“I lost my father today,” he said. “I don’t want to hear that crap.”

The word father bounced around in my already sore head. His dad. Dad lost his dad, I thought.

Later that night we all sat around the living room with lights off and watched the Christmas tree. The house had never been so quiet and I had never seen my dad sit so still.

At the funeral, I cried uncontrollably. The kind of crying that makes you feel sick. We four youngest had been playing on the snow mountains piled high against the fences surrounding the school and church. They were beside each other, our school being a Catholic one. I remember standing on the highest snow mountain (where we weren’t allowed to be because a child had gotten killed when he fell from the snow mountain onto the fence’s jagged edge) and not caring that I was standing up there. I had always been so obedient but this day I felt as though I had some special right to be up there, especially with my brothers and sister.

The church bell rang ten times and that was our signal to go. None of us wanted to go.

In church the organ music played loud and my father carried in the casket with other men. Everyone was surprised to see my aunt come into the church. I couldn’t understand why. Why wouldn’t she come to her own father’s funeral? But them I remembered that I had never seen her in church before. I wondered why that was. My stomach ached and I sniffed all through it. My dad lost his dad. I’ll never see Tata again. I avoided Tata.

We were not allowed to go to the Cemetery. Carmine was furious. He stormed around Gram and Tata’s house in a tantrum screaming in rage and had to be sent outside. I walked down the thin, grape stained path with him. People were scattered around the yard already. People I’d never seen before who were related to me. The yard and garden were the same but my cotton dresses never felt so light nor the softest breezes so cool as they had been before that day.

Soon everyone returned from the cemetery. I’d never seen so many people or so much food in my life. Dad kept going to the cellar and emerging with more of Tata’s wine. “This is a party,” Carmine yelled, “Aren’t they supposed to feel sad?” I shrugged and looked around for a quiet place to retreat to but found none. There were people everywhere.

Two months later we had to move my aunt and grandmother out of that two story house and yard. The college needed the land and they had no choice but to move.

We all went down into the cellar, Tata’s domain, to help with the move. I was never before allowed down there. There was so much stuff, things that looked like junk to us, all neatly stacked or packed in boxes. Legs and arms of old dolls piled and organized neatly into little boxes, stacks of expired dog licenses, pieces of tools, milk cartons cleaned and tied together with a rope running through holes made by a paper punch in the top of them, bottle caps, coke bottles, old newspapers, anything you could imagine.

“What was he doing with all this stuff?”

“Nothing. Just saved it all.”

“But what in the world?”

“Just didn’t like to throw anything away. Look, all I want is this wine press and these barrels, that’s all. You can take whatever else you want. Just give me this,” my father said patting his hand firmly against the roundness of one of the barrels. I’m going to make the wine now.”

I stared at the cellar, thought of the yard and garden and couldn’t believe it would all be gone.

“Going to build dorms here,” my father said as we stood together outside later, his voice resonating into the glowing twilight of the yard.

I looked around and realized that whatever I’d missed had been something wonderful.

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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