Shortly after my parents moved from Jamaica, Queens, to our house on Pamela Circle in the spring of 1974, my dad’s predecessor at the Union Carbide chemical plant, Dr. Sexton, showed up on the driveway with a rototiller.
“You live in West Virginia. You need a garden,” he said.
He proceeded to till up half of the backyard, tearing up the grass and clay before mixing in special soil to balance out the earth’s acidity. Then, he and my father planted seeds and starts. Rows of peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and corn. Zucchini vines and green beans along the fence. Roses on the side of the house for my mom. Flower beds and hanging pots out front, full of petunias, geraniums and marigolds whose dead heads were in endless need of plucking.
Later: an entire bed for Indian herbs and greens previously unavailable unless we drove 500 miles to the Indian grocery stores in New Jersey. I can say with confidence that yard at 5303 Pamela Circle was probably the only source of fresh mehthi (fenugreek) and patra (colocasia) within a hundred-mile radius.
“I can say with confidence that yard at 5303 Pamela Circle was probably the only source of fresh mehthi (fenugreek) and patra (colocasia) within a hundred-mile radius.”
My dad grew up in Gujarati towns that were dry and dusty — first Rajkot, then Ahmedabad. Towns that were drought-prone, where gardening for pleasure was a privilege of the wealthy, with their excess water supply, and their own personal gardeners to toil under the hot sun. The very act of planting grass was an audacious, bordering on obnoxious, expression of wealth. And growing food was viewed as a job for farmers, not for doctors.
But my father had broken with that life when he boarded a plane for the United States with a one-way ticket in hand. Now, he was committed to making a life in West Virginia, replete with rich Appalachian traditions and racial homogeneity. Dr. Sexton was showing him a way to connect with his culturally dissimilar neighbors and co-workers: the garden.
The garden was immense, however, and an impossible amount of work for someone with a full-time job. So it was that my sister and I became unwilling apprentices to my father the gardener, and spent our evenings and weekends from March to October working at his command.
Early on Saturday mornings, Dad would mix water and Miracle-Gro in a full-size steel trash can and deploy us with mugs that we would fill, pour out at the base of each plant, and then re-fill, making our way back and forth down the rows what felt like a hundred times.
“Dr. Sexton was showing him a way to connect with his culturally dissimilar neighbors and co-workers: the garden.”
Two or three times a week after sunset, he would make me stand beside the faucet for the garden hose, and shout “a little more” or “a little less” as I turned the faucet back and forth until the flow was the precise simulation of rainfall that he desired, and not a drop of water was wasted in the transition between beds.
At least a few times each season, he would send me out with the green Sevin pump and sprayer — the same one he used to kill the lice in my hair — to coat the plants in a white mist of pesticide.
And finally, when the harvest came in, I would be charged with sorting mixtures of vegetables into plastic grocery bags, then delivering them to the neighbors, to Mr. Moles, who ran the local grocery, to Mr. Thomas at the tire shop, to Mr. Bell at his auto shop, to my dad’s co-workers at the chemical plant, and to many of the families in our Indian community. Every weekend, a different set of drop-offs.
I was not an enthusiastic participant in these tasks. I would stand by the faucet grumbling to myself in between my dad’s commands: “Why can’t he just get one of those trigger nozzles for the hose so that I don’t have to stand here, and the flow is exactly how he wants it?” Though I yearned to get down to the basketball hoops at the end of the street, instead I would find myself pulling weeds to protect vegetables I didn’t even enjoy eating. Ringan (eggplant). Doodhi (bottle gourd). Save me, please.
“I would find myself pulling weeds to protect vegetables I didn’t even enjoy eating. Ringan (eggplant). Doodhi (bottle gourd). Save me, please.”
It’s hard to know whether my dad actually enjoyed the tremendous workload involved with the garden. After 12-hour workdays split across multiple chemical plants, he was often already exhausted when he got home. But I do know that his vegetable dispatches were the way he built relationships.
Tomatoes sent over the back fence to Mr. Williams, the shampoo salesman, meant a lifetime supply of VO5 shampoo and conditioner. Peppers trucked down the street to Mr. Withrow were met with baskets of figs in return. Boxes overflowing with corn delivered to Mr. Starcher and Mr. Bell meant that oil got changed for free, and cars got repaired at cost.
These interactions, repeated annually over the span of 30 years in West Virginia, made for a profound mutual respect between people who work with their hands. The line between mutual respect and love grew blurrier and blurrier with each passing year.
Did Dr. Sexton know this core truth when he tilled up our backyard? That while relationships should not strictly be transactional, sometimes you need transactions to initiate a relationship. And that for our isolated Indian family to successfully navigate West Virginia relationships, we were going to need a transaction our neighbors were familiar with.
“While relationships should not strictly be transactional, sometimes you need transactions to initiate a relationship.”
It’s been twenty years since I lived in West Virginia, and thirteen since my parents moved away. But to this day, when I run into friends from home, our conversation inevitably turns to the August corn parties in our backyard, to my dad’s Scoville scale experiments with different varieties of peppers, to the plastic bags of perfectly ripe end-of-summer tomatoes left on their front porches.
“Those tomatoes,” they’ll say without fail. “I’ve never tasted a better tomato since.”
And every time, I’ll nod in agreement, knowing that no tomato will ever taste as perfect to any of us as the ones that grew out of my father’s labor, and my father’s love.
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Neema Avashia has been teaching 8th grade Civics in the Boston Public Schools for the last 15 years. Despite her prolonged stay in New England, she will always be a West Virginia girl at heart.