There is a painting by Sandra Bierman, “The Planting,” which portrays a woman on her knees with her hands almost cuddling a seedling tree. It was with similar reverence that Grandpa treated his fig tree, raised from a cutting he brought from the old country. Grandma said, “That fig tree, I’m telling you, he takes care of it just like it was a pet.”
Figs from Grandpa’s tree were sweet and succulent because, he said, “I bury her each year. This climate here is cold. She needs to be protected. In the ground, the good earth keeps her warm and safe. That’s why I take your grandmother to Florida each year — for the warmth.”
In truth, Grandma was never happy about going to Florida to stay with her in-laws. We do not have a single picture of her smiling under a palm tree. Why did she go? “If it makes him happy, what’s to say?” she would shrug. “He works hard.
Although there was a major ritual in the springtime when Grandpa and his brothers unearthed the tree, preparing to bury the tree was something that Grandpa did with just one of his brothers. There was a bit of solemnity to the occasion around the first of November for two reasons. A chill in the air signaled the coming of the first frost, and it was important to get the tree in the ground before that happened. Also in Europe, All Souls Day is a serious time to visit the graveside of one’s relatives. After burying the tree, Grandpa would make a sign of the cross, look to the heavens, and say, “Momma, grazie.”
Grandpa would start digging the trench before the ground hardened, but was careful to protect the roots of the tree. Then just after Halloween, he would prune the branches. The next day one of his brothers came by to hold the tree upright while he cut some roots. Once my youngest sister and cousins came by and Grandpa let them help. They felt so proud when he said, “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Then of course, Grandma would come to witness the moment in which the tree was wrapped, tied with rope, put into the ground, and covered with leaves. Then came a tarp and some boards before the men dragged a big wooden rowboat over the shallow ditch for further protection.
By now Grandma would have slipped away to the kitchen to brew the demitasse, put out a bottle of anisette, and arrange her biscotti on a tray. The two men would walk in smiling. Then, pinching her cheek, Grandpa would say, “Nancy, she’s safe in the ground. Now we can leave for Florida.”
Rita Esposito Watson, a Providence Journal and PsychologyToday.comcolumnist, is writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”