In Nonno Gaetano's Garden

Ciro T. De Rosa

Copyright 2002 by Ciro T. De Rosa


This is a true story that occurred in Brooklyn about fifty-five years ago. I believe it speaks to a youngster's awakening to a world removed from the coarseness and clatter of the city. The boy learns the value of family and the miracles of nature as God has created them.

When I was a little boy living in South Brooklyn, my father would take me to visit my nonno Gaetano. Nonno Gaetano owned a barbershop on the corner of Union Street and Fourth Avenue. It had three chairs that had seen better days, that faced a bank of three large mirrors surrounded by dark paneling that had three small lamps on either side to lend the mirrors and paneling a bit of refinement. As a kid I wondered why I had never seen the lamps alight. I later learned that they were there just for "show."The two large globes hanging from the intricately designed tin ceiling with long rattan blades attached were the source of light. At the foot of every chair and just off to the left was a brass spittoon filled with water that was usually dark and murky with cigarette butts in various stages of disintegration mixed in with spittle. The floor tiles, I remember, were foot square and black and white. The three walls with posters advertising Penaud hair balm and Vitalis were painted a stark white. Most of the times the area around Nonno's chair, the first and only one working, was covered with hair clippings of every shade and texture imaginable. In front of the chair was an old cash register announcing NO Sale; above it was a calendar with the picture of a neatly groomed man smiling back at you. The days were crossed off as if some impending date must not be forgotten, and Nonno in his starched white doctor's smock looking every bit like a man ready to accommodate his clientele. Another thing I learned later on was that the hair remained there all the time so those customers would think the barbershop was a real going concern. The wall with the posters directly behind the chairs was the waiting area. There were five folding chairs and pedestal ashtrays between them. The big pane of glass that made up the front window had a bow shaped JIMMY'S BARBERSHOP stenciled across it. Directly below it was a huge elephant eared plant with the darkest green leaves I had ever seen.

From the glass one could see Sessa's Bank directly across the street where the paesani did their banking business, changing Lire for dollars or visa versa. It was the place where official documents that required a Notio were filled out and translated either into Italian or English. Real estate was bought and sold, deeds recorded, mortgage papers explained and demystified for many of the folks who never learned to read or write.

The Bank became the official clearinghouse for all matters pertaining to the law and anything else that needed official seals. For a fee, of course In those days, barbershops closed on Mondays. So my father, also a barber, was free as well to make his weekly visit to his father. I always went along because papa got me out of my mother's hair for a couple of hours. But in truth, I loved going because we always ended up in Nonno's garden where I never failed to be enchanted by this special place. We would walk the five blocks to Nonno's brownstone that was adjacent the shop. I remember the long flight of concrete stairs flanked on either side by ornate black enameled wrought iron piers. What I remember most was that we never used them. Instead, papa always swung open the gate and we descended a couple of steps and waited for my grandfather to open the screen door, greet my father with a brisk handshake and peck on the cheek. Then give me an affectionate hug and kisses all over my face that resulted in my face not needing to be washed for days my father always joked. I would make a big thing out of rubbing my entire face while mewling, "Oh, nonno, don't." As always, he would hold me by my shoulders, turn me this way and that and with a discerning eye scrutinized my latest hair cut. Then with a wry grimace and a wag of his finger proclaim, "You fadda can no woika for me wida dis kinda job!" We'd laugh; papa would make a desperate gesture of defeat and saw the air with his hand. Then with his usual grand gesture, nonno would wave us into the lower corridor at whose end a bright splash of sunlight streamed onto the linoleum floor.

That was fifty years ago. Nonno is no longer with us, nor is papa. Those halcyon days of my youth may also be gone, but the memories of days filled with discoveries that a ten-year old boy made still fill me with a quiet joy. I remember my world expanding as I began to observe the ebb and flow of the neighborhood and its inhabitants. The realization that life for mama and papa was a serious matter and had to be approached with a healthy respect for unexpected events. They never indulged themselves or us for that matter. There was very little time for things that did not either enhance the family 's fortunes or protect it from forces ready to sully members of the family or its name. Memories of papa's arrival home after eight and sitting down to dinner alone because mama knew we kids couldn't hold out those many hours. But every Sunday, we'd all sit around the table and listen to mama and papa chat about the week that had just passed as she dished out pasta into our plates, then smother it with a meat sauce whose aroma I can still recall. It seems the older I get the clearer the memories become. The folks who lived on our block who struggled to make their way in a culture that eschewed many of the values and traditions they held fast to. Their fervent desire to see their children conquer the social requirements, like reading and writing and speaking English as good as any American and making them able to take advantage of all the system offered. I remember my own initiation into the world beyond my own street when I began elementary school. The first time I understood that my mama and papa and practically everyone I knew were not like other mamas and papas. I listened to mamas who spoke easily in English and never had to revert to Italian to finish a thought. Yet all that is in the past and while my thoughts conjuring events and incidents both sweet and sad, I have one that never fades from my thoughts.

I especially will always remember those long hot summer afternoons when we'd walk through the long cool hall way and enter a magical place trellised with ivy and neat rows of greenery going all the way back to the faded red brick wall of the adjoining building. About twenty feet away stood a fountain topped by a cherub holding a clay pot out of which flowed cool water and whose smile enchanted a little boy. I remember the old rattan fan backed chairs placed neatly around a large round wood industrial spool for reinforced steel bands that served as a table. It was covered with a green and white checkered oilcloth, and painted dark green like the chairs, it afforded plenty of room for the large ceramic bowl of fruit and the delicious black figs displayed on a brightly colored enamel platter depicting the Bay of Naples. There was always a jug of homemade wine nonno produced annually with papa, and my Uncle Salvatore's help. Every day down in the cantina for a week, the squeezing of the ruby red grapes mixed with ones black and juicy finally resulted in vino proprio speciale, nonno would pronounce, smacking his lips after the first tasting. Papa and nonno always sat under the trellised arbor paring an apple or savoring a piece of melon, while peach slices swam in the pool of wine so purple it looked black. Once in a while, papa gave me a sip and a bit of peach now thoroughly soaked with the liquor of the wine. Even now, after all these years, I can smell the sweet scent of grandpa's Palumbo mixing with the other lush smells of the garden, and the exquisite taste of the wine soaked peaches! While papa and nonno chatted about business in their barbershops, left to my own devices, I roamed the garden exploring the rows of tomatoes firmly tied to wooden stakes, noting their bright red color splashed against the green leaves. I marveled at the delicious aroma of the fresh basilico growing in profusion in long wooden planters. Sometimes I'd attempt to catch a butterfly as it flitted its way around the rose bushes or dodge an intruding yellow jacket attempting to feast on the flower's nectar Wherever I looked, I saw myriad colors of a variety of vegetation that grew in neat rows separated by flagstone aisles.

At the end of the season, papa would turn the soil and pile the remains of the annual plants onto the mulch heap to be used for the next year's planting. Sometimes when planting time rolled around, nonno allowed me to help him plant his beloved garden. For me, the planting was what I enjoyed most. I'd take the old garden spade with its shinny edge as a result of years of biting into the rich loam, and with a steady shove, begin to outline in the dirt the shallow ditch that would receive the particular seed nonno was planting. Then he'd give me a hand full of the seeds and instruct me how to carefully drop them into the trough. That was when I became aware of the mystery of life, I think. To see the young shoots break free and stretch themselves toward the life giving sun after germinating in the black earth, made me acutely aware of how we humans, planted by God, too, attempt to blossom into the variety of species that He ordains. I'm reminded that the rooting out of the dead plants is very much like the passing of generations, making room for the next and the next. Of course the death cycle was revealed when the cold withered the fruit on the vine or turned the verdant vegetables into shrivel leaves of wrinkled brown shades. Even the ever changing weather, first warm with light delicate rains that penetrated the earth to feed the seedlings, or dark gray skies laded with storm clouds pouring torrents of water that drowned the earth and destroyed the young tomatoes on the vine, was like life. For life too is unpredictable, and while filled with sunny days, can change over time and render life a long misery that saps the strength from one's being. Finally, I'm reminded how like a god, nonno was, creating life, watching over it, nurturing it to fruition. Then choosing which vegetable or piece of fruit was to be picked first. Thus starting the process toward a new garden to be planted.

 Whenever I think of nonno's garden these days as life whizzes by and time seems at a premium for everyone, including me, I remember the noisy bustling city sounds that drowned out the bird's song. Or the soft sound a breeze makes as it wends its way through the trees and bends the long grass. They never penetrated the profound quiet of this place with only the buzzing of flies breaking the silence. The walls of the buildings kept the heat of the summer sun from encroaching into the garden that was cooled by the airflow caught between the buildings and the world outside remained at bay. And the only reality was nonno's wonderful garden where a little boy discovered beauty and life that would sustain him as he grew into manhood.

Ciro has now passed on but he has left a legacy of stories on our website and as Preservation Foundation books, The Door to Naples and Cityscape--Tales of the City.   

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