I’ll always remember the heat of the pavement as I’d step out of my mom’s car and onto the driveway of my grandparents’ home in suburban Toronto.
My Nonna, eager to see her seven-year-old granddaughter, would fly down the porch steps, her Mediterranean skin glowing from the late August sun. It was those long hugs and even longer goodbyes on the driveway that first taught me what unconditional love felt like.
“Have you seen Nonno’s tomatoes?” I feel her stack of gold rings as she takes my hand, and we walk together, past the brick-layered bungalow they called home for so many years. Their suburban neighborhood was a stark contrast to the narrow streets and pastel-coloured apartments that line the mountainous towns of Molise.
The cherry tomatoes, small and unintimidating, were always my favorite. They were the first ones to ripen, and as soon as my Nonno would place one in the palm of my hand, I knew it was the beginning of the final days of summer.
My Nonno’s usual spot was at the head of the dining table, silently observing everything and everyone around him, but the summer heat always brought a welcomed change of scenery. His favorite place to be was amongst the vines that held the sun-ripened tomatoes and the roots of sedano, carote and cipolla (celery, carrot and onion).
His silence could be intimidating, which is why I was always thankful for the summers, when he would welcome everyone’s curiosity and hunger into his garden. It was as if Danny’s Garden was the neighborhood’s summer attraction: with the garage full of bushels of fresh produce, my Nonno was ready to give fresh produce to whoever stopped by.
He’d tell you about the right type of soil and the correct placement of the plants with the positioning of the sun, combining his knowledge of both science and tradition, and the dichotomy of both patience and excitement.
I watched as neighbors would walk up the driveway and into the backyard smiling, arms full of fresh parsley and wildflowers, wrapped up in damp paper towels.
I’d sit on the porch steps in my bright pink shorts, dipping savoiardi into my espresso, attempting to listen to my Nonna and the neighbors gossip in Italian. When I gave up trying to decipher the language, I’d run off to the front of the house where two mulberry trees stood. The biggest joy was finding the deepest plum-coloured berry, ripe enough for me to pick off and eat. And in lieu of the usual seven-year-old fingers stained with markers, it was those purple mulberries that left their marks on my hand and the watermelon that would always stain my white t-shirts.
Night would fall, and my Nonno would be at the kitchen sink, washing off the soil from his tired hands. He’d look down and smile at my own purple stained fingers as we both scrubbed parts of the summer off of us.
In those summers, dinner was always a product of the garden. The table was full of tomatoes with fresh basil, spaghetti al pomodoro and fiori di zucca fritti (fried zucchini blossoms). The simplicity of it all is what I miss most.
But where do the memories of those Sundays in August go? They’re in between the purple stained fingers of a seven-year-old girl. They run through the soil and the sun-kissed vines that grew to hold the stars of the summer. And they linger on those white kitchen walls, in between the shadows of two slow dancing figures from an older generation.