By Sean Cruz
My grandparents lived at the edge of town, in a wood frame house in the Sacramento valley that they had surrounded with flower and vegetable gardens, trellises, grape vines and cactuses that thrived in the California sun, a chicken coop in the back, where the rooster roamed.
They had planted fruit trees, apricot, peach, plum, walnut, almond, fig and olive, long before I was born and they all easily bore my weight and that of my brother, our cousins and friends, significant chunks of childhood spent up in those trees or throwing figs at each other, racing around the house and barn or into the fields across the street. I never acquired a taste for figs, but they made superb missiles, much better than the other fruits and vegetables near at hand, and the seasonal fig fights began as soon as they were large enough to throw, still green on the tree.
My grandparents grew corn, grapes, tomatoes, peppers and chilies, cucumbers, squash, beans and peas, all destined for the kitchen table, where my grandmother made fresh tortillas every morning, where a pot of beans was always steaming on the stove, never so warm as the love she gave us children, memories of my grandmother and her red and white checked tablecloth….
My father also kept a vegetable garden in our backyard, where he spent many an hour working his stress into the earth, a facet I did not understand until later, after he was gone, and I had become an adult working in my own garden, the soil absorbing my own stress, clearing my mind, building a life for my own young family, tomato plant by tomato plant.
My father suffered a series of heart attacks, two of them while working in his garden amid the corn stalks and jalapenos. There were tears in his eyes when he told me that he would no longer be able to work out there, his heart going bad in those days before bypass surgery was available, the technology that would have saved his life not quite invented yet, and he was gone in 1975 at a youthful 52 years of age, far too soon.
My grandmother passed in 1980 at the age of 80, at least 50 of those years spent in that house, in that kitchen, in the gardens. After the house was sold, the new owners allowed the property to sink into neglect, and within a couple of years the entire garden was dead, most of the trees cut down, a tragedy, an affront, a paradise lost.
When I work in my own garden, I think of my father and my grandmother mostly. I think about the life they built for me, the foundations they laid, the garden paths they designed. I understand how valuable gardening time was to my father, and I know that I honor him when I work out there. I speak to my father in my garden.
In the eight years that I have lived here in this house, I have put hundreds of plants into the ground, all with thoughts of my parents, my grandparents and my children, all with reflections on the past, the present, the future. Plants, you see, are often not just plants….
I put fruit trees into the earth, cherry, peach and apricot, in part to connect me to those California gardens I grew up in, but the climate in Portland does not favor these varieties, and after having only one good crop, I’ve taken out the peach and apricot. I'll replace the cherries this spring.
I planted an olive tree a few years ago. It’s about eight feet tall now, and I’m going to learn how to cure the olives pretty soon.
I have a remnant of my grandmother's garden, an old concrete birdbath on a pedestal, a frog figure on top, that part broken decades ago, standing in an honored place under my olive tree, shaded, protected, priceless....
I’ve planted strawberries, blueberries, cactus, bamboo, sage, all the common garden vegetables, potatoes to tomatoes, and built a greenhouse from recycled glass doors and windows and assorted found objects, painted up in many bright colors, a couple of murals on the fence.
I like to think that after I am gone, the garden will endure, will live on, that someone will work it, knowing the linkage and the history, that the connection between this garden and my father’s garden and my grandmother’s garden will be unbroken, a legacy of fruit and vegetables and the earth to be sure, but most importantly a legacy of love, of intergenerational love, born in a grandmother’s heart, and shared on a red and white checkered tablecloth.
Before my four children disappeared in 1996 in a Mormon kidnapping, I used to work my garden with my children, like my father before me.
My grandparents names were Victor and Dominga Cruz; my parents names were John and Olive Cruz; my children’s names Natalia, Aaron, Tyler, Allie…. Honor to you, love always….
I tend a garden of intergenerational love. Sometimes it tastes like cucumbers, sometimes like snow peas, today it tastes like unfrozen strawberries, Oregon strawberries from the east side of the house….
It always tastes of love….