By Lucia A. Silecchia
Do your summer plans include planting a garden? To my mind, gardening is one of the most hopeful acts of joy, and joyful acts of hope, that I have seen.
I lack the patience to be a gardener. But, my grandfather was a gardener — the most enthusiastic one I have ever known. Watching him taught me much.
Over a hundred years ago, he was a farm boy eking out a living in the sunny hills of southern Italy. A long journey later, he found himself eking out a living shining shoes on the street corners of New York — the city that would become his hometown and mine.
But, once a farmer, always a farmer. When he grew up, became an auto mechanic, and settled in Queens, he recreated a farm as best he could in the yard surrounding his home. I vividly remember how, in a small piece of land under the watchful supervision of his dog and my cat, he coaxed out a rich bounty of tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard, rhubarb, squash, eggplants, sweet peas, green beans, grapes, quince, figs, persimmons, mint, basil, hot peppers, sweet peppers, strawberries…and ever more tomatoes! Every scrap of land grew something, and he preferred not to “waste” land on flowers when there was food he could grow.
One of the highlights of my childhood was the day my parents bought a backyard swing set for my siblings and
me. But, as it emerged from the Sears Roebuck shipping box in all its gleaming red and white glory, it must have broken Grandpa’s heart a bit. He knew that, until we outgrew swings, a prime piece of his garden became our turf. If ever there was tangible evidence of his deep love for us, it was his surrender of at least four rows of tomato plants for the joy of his grandchildren.
I think often of his simple, ordinary garden when summer rolls around. To plant a seed and tend it, to watch it grow and bear fruit (or vegetable or flower), and to cherish the bounty of a harvest, however small, is the simplest of human acts. It is one undertaken year in and year out since human life began.
Yet, in this ordinary activity is much profound and hopeful truth. Gardening starts when someone looks at a humble seed and sees in it possibilities that are unseen but hoped for. So much in life begins this way.
It continues when that seed is planted and hidden away for a time when there is no outward sign of anything good to come. It advances when the first sign of a stem or a leaf or a blade timidly comes forth from the dirt with the promise of new life. So much in life offers that first glimmer of hope in just this way.
It involves some disappointment when seeds planted do not emerge or when they shrivel and die soon after they peek out from the soil. Often, life’s plans seem to perish too quickly.
It requires a tenacious battle against weeds that somehow, inexplicably, always seem hardier and healthier.
It takes the gentle care of watering and tending young plants as they tentatively mature. Often, those hopes in life that are the most cherished seem the most fragile.
It generates frustration when birds and insects help themselves to the ripe new bounty and exasperation when wind or weather prematurely ends the growing season. So many times in life, it can seem as though success stays just a little beyond reach.
Yet, gardeners keep gardening. In spite of all the obstacles along the way, there is still the hope of that first bite of a home-grown tomato. There is hope for the first sauce with fresh basil swirling around in it. There is hope for the first strawberry and the first sweet peas — that, inexplicably, even non-pea eaters relish when they come from seeds they planted. There is much beautiful hope in the ordinary planting of a garden. Much of life is this way too.
So many of the parables of Christ were parables of plants and gardens. I have always been told that this was because Christ dwelt among us in an agrarian time and place when the stories of the soil would best resonate with his listeners. Yet, they also touch our hearts today when so many in both city and county turn to the simple, hopeful joy of planting a garden even in summers of restless uncertainty.
The deep trust, the unspoken optimism, and the joyful hope of waiting for a harvest all marked the summers of my grandfather’s life — summers and hope he shared with me. I hope all who are discovering the joy of a summer garden this year will be blessed with a rich bounty to fill their ordinary times.
Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple.