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November 23, 2014
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Grandpa’s Dirt

Photo by Amanda Reed

By MaryAnn Cappellino

Grandpa knew dirt. The son of feudal farmers, he was born into it and was one with it. He knew its language and listened to what it asked for. He didn’t have words like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, but he could tell if the soil was healthy from its scent or how it felt in his hands. As a little girl I watched Grandpa in his garden gently turning the dirt so that it would loosen and breathe and graciously accept the seeds he left in its care. Grandpa knew when it was thirsty and the best time to let it drink, always before the sun or after the sun. It was a living thing to be fed and nurtured.

The knowledge of the soil, passed from my Grandpa’s father and his father before him and so on down the ancestral line where their lives and wisdom stretched out into the horizon... like the hills beyond hills of Grandpa’s beloved Sicily. A knowledge of dirt was a matter of eating or not eating. From childhood, grandpa toiled under the heavy hand of the Sicilian sun. Land owned, not by his family, but by a baron. All they could keep was a third of their crop, the rest went to the baron. Barely enough to survive. When Grandpa’s father died, there was one less pair of hands to work the land. Reluctantly and sadly, Grandpa, the only son, left all that he ever knew, setting out for America to find a way to provide for his mother and sisters. He was eighteen.

Grandpa carried his knowledge of the land over the hills of Sicily and across the ocean to New York. Even in the concrete city, he grew vegetables and herbs on fire escapes and on tarred roof tops of the tenements he lived in. He married the young woman he knew from his village in Sicily and they eventually settled in a small house in Brooklyn bought with years of their earnings in the factories and on the docks. When he saw the fallow dirt of the backyard he knew the blessings it held. It was there that he patiently created the garden that fills the memories of my childhood.

He rose while the sun still slept, tending his garden before heading out for a long day’s labor. In the evening he would walk along its paths, the dirt fanning out in moist rows of blackness, giving back with tufts of green that were to be our food. “Don’t step on the plants!” A childhood refrain that echoes still, called out by adults as we went to fetch a stray Spaldine that bounced its way into the tomato plants, or to pick fat juicy figs that we could reach with our little hands.