The old Overpeck Bridge once spanned a creek of the same name, before the New Jersey Wetlands were altered by landfill and dredging. In the spring of 1955, a middle-aged lady read a classified about peat for sale at a roadside stand at the foot of the bridge. A local man collected the peat in his little boat. My Nana aimed to improve the sandy river bottom soil at our new suburban home, and brought me along on her adventure. The vendor loaded as many burlap bags of peat as could fit into the 1953 Caribbean Blue Nash Rambler convertible. At 4, I could help by staying out of the way, while absorbing the sights and smells near the one-lane bridge, and the pungent, earthy smell of the meadow. So, I was unwittingly introduced to the importance of organic matter in gardening. In the newly enriched soil, Nana planted azaleas and roses, and sowed grass seed for the cool turf she weeded and mowed, and where I played.
In 1930 my Nana, Julia, migrated with my grandfather, Mike, and their two children from central Pennsylvania to New York City for work. There would be no gardens during the 25 years they spent in the City. Julia had worked long, hard days on the family farm; her petite frame belied her physical strength and stamina, and she worked hard in New York to make ends meet, and to keep her apartment home for her mechanic husband, her daughter and son. She was always a lady, and tolerant of my endless questions and prattle. I admired her as she stood in front of her large mirrored dresser, brushed her fine, sandy-brown hair, and quickly swirled and pinned it into a plain French twist. She was “no-fuss,” and her style was perfect to my eyes. I recall seeing her wear wool slacks to shovel snow, but never shorts or trousers. Nana pushed the rotary mower, planted and pruned wearing crisp, hand-sewn summer dresses. A couple of black and white photos of Julia, her mother, and my mother, who was then 12, were taken in the garden in those old days in Pennsylvania. In these images, they wore plain house dresses; perhaps not starched. In all the days I’d seen Nana garden, she never seemed to get her clothes dirty. But I did help her clean her finger nails sometimes when we sat on the couch in the evening watching T.V.
My dear, sweet Nana dug flower beds around our 1/4 acre family property. She planted Hemlocks for hedging, and flowering purple and pink Rhododendrons. Soon, there appeared Gaillardia and other perennials, and annuals like Zinnia and Cosmos. Her love affair with Hybrid Tea and climbing roses flourished. My dad used his basic carpentry skills to build a huge cedar trellis to stretch along the slate path, for her Red Rambler Roses.
As I shadowed Nana, I also became a dirt-under-the-nails gardener. While I played among the nursery rows at the farm and garden center, she shopped for Roses named for Disney characters: ‘Pinocchio,’ ‘Jiminy Cricket,’ and ‘Snow White.’ “Would you take care of them?” she asked, and I nodded enthusiastically. With our new plants on the rear seat and floor of the Nash, the sweet fragrance of orange, red and white roses, and pots of spicy red, orange and yellow wiry stemmed Lantana enveloping us, we returned home to Asbury Street to work in the garden. Together we planted purple and white Petunias, Pansies, with their cheerful faces, and a mix of evening-fragrant 4 O’ Clocks from hard, black seeds. We collected peppery Portulaca seeds to save over winter in white envelopes. After frost, we carefully dug tulip bulbs, and hung them from a cellar rafter in mesh onion bags, to plant them out again in the spring.
Nana infused the love of gardening in me, and I studied Horticulture, and cared for fine gardens. My husband and I bought a Bucks County mini-farm, so I could grow perennials and cut flowers. Nana continued to garden well into her 90’s, while living with my retired parents in California. When her gardening days were over, I returned her with my mom to Pennsylvania. In the slanting autumn sunlight, I wheeled her around my own bountiful garden beds. “Very nice,” was her quiet blessing, her legacy: the love of plants, flower gardens, life itself. I couldn’t have wished for a greater treasure.
Mary Ellen Gambutti has been writing since she got a handle on what words were for. She now writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter in the ’50’s and ’60’s, her search and reunion with her birth mother at 40, her professional gardening career, a brain hemorrhage at 58, and her long journey to recovery. Her non-fiction appears in the March issue of Gravel Magazine. Mary Ellen and her husband, Phil, live in Sarasota, FL with their sweet Bijon, Willis.