My grandfather, Mario, had two grandchildren whose names were also Mario. I was one of the two. My cousin Mario and I would visit grandpa often (generation gaps were uncommon then). One fall day, I visited grandpa and found him and my cousin building a wooden shelter for his exquisite fig trees. Grandpa was testing Mario to see if he could be of help.
I asked grandpa if I could also help. He graciously accepted my offer, instructed me about the use of a hammer and nails, and asked me to evenly bind two pieces of wood. My cousin stopped hammering and, along with grandpa, watched my first attempt at elementary carpentry. Nails bent. The hammer often missed the nails’ heads. When I finished it was obvious that the two pieces of wood could just as well have been bound by ‘scotch tape.’
Grandpa pointed to my cousin and said, “Tu, si” (“You, yes”). Then he gently put his hand on my shoulder, smiled affectionately, and said, “Tu, no.” I was relieved.
At about that time in my life I lived in a home with a backyard that had a 10’ x 15’ patch of dirt that I mistook for soil. Having appointed myself as Morality Officer of my poor family, I decided to grow vegetables. Being of Italian decent, I planned to plant lots of seeds for the obligatory tomatoes and a few seeds for lettuce.
First, I had to clear the ‘garden,’ which was laden with weeds. As I wrenched them out by their roots, years of debris were uncovered, mainly bottles and cans. Among those, there was a torn, yellowed page from a Chinese newspaper. I wondered how that item found its way into an Italian/Jewish neighborhood. Given the demographics of Brooklyn, that excavation was equivalent to the 9th layer of ancient Troy.
In the hot sun, I removed rocks larger than pebbles and reduced the hardened dirt almost to the texture of sugar. But being congenitally unable to handle manure, I stinted on mixing manure with the plot of dirt. That was probably my undoing.
I planted the seeds as instructed on their packets. I watered them. I ruthlessly plucked their weed rivals at their roots as soon as their sprouts hit the light of day. But tomato sprouts never broke through the surface of the savage dirt. I thought, “Perhaps the lettuce seeds succeeded because they are something like weeds.” (Judging by their taste, I still think that spinach, escarole, and kale are really weeds posturing as vegetables.) Somehow, the lettuce was fine.
I harvested all the lettuce in about 15 minutes. But there was enough of the leafy vegetable to provide a family of seven with the salad for a single dinner. Technically, it wasn’t exactly a salad because it consisted of one vegetable. But in time of crisis niceties must be swept aside. I seasoned the salad with my recipe for Italian dressing and placed it on the dinner table as “Une Salade Simple.”
To put everyone at ease I was the first to laugh at my colossal failure. Yet, that salad provided us with laughter at that dinner and the echoes of that laughter through the years─ one of the ways a family keeps its identity alive.
My experience also assured me that I had no aptitude for agriculture.