From the step-stool where I sit I see my great-grandmother at the sink and tomatoes ripening in the window sill. It’s just the two of us. It’s early. The kitchen is still cool and there is dew on the screen door. It’s the middle of summer. She’s tall. She’s wearing a house-dress, her legs are hidden by opaque panty hose, and her feet are stuffed into sensible shoes. She wears an apron, the kind that fit over her head rather than tie behind her back. Tie-backs, she said, were for show. The one she wore implored work and I don’t remember a time she wasn’t wearing it.
A breeze blows in through the back screen door and lifts the back of her dress just enough to expose the thinness of her legs. Her hair, fresh from pin curls, is more cotton than steel now, and her hands make rhythmic movements as she kneads dough for biscuits.
The garden outside is pregnant and ripe for picking, and I am ripe for an adventure. It’s still early enough that the birds are flitting and singing before the heat sets in for the day. A tea towel rests easy on her shoulder and she’s making quick work of the dough because bacon is popping and whirling in a skillet. Seconds later glasses clink, juice is poured, eggs crack, and coffee is put on the stove to brew. I’m aching to pick vegetables in the garden.
She gazes out the window as she goes back to kneading. A bluebird grazes the window. She jumps and then notices something in the garden. Her hands come out of the dough and go under the running water, her eyes never leaving the garden. I look out the back door and see nothing. She walks by me swifter than an old lady should, strides across the driveway to the garden, grabs a pitchfork, stabs the ground, and hurls a snake over the fence.
“You don’t want serpents in your garden. Some say they’re good for it, but they’ll lay waste to the bush beans if you let ‘em.” She resumes kneading and humming hymns.
I was born into a family of characters, so the work of my childhood was trying not to become one, self-taming wildness for the more acceptable posture of pleasing.
My family. A great-uncle killed in a small village in Italy during The War. His mother, who reeled from it all the way to her grave. A grandmother who married a swindler at 15 and divorced just a couple of years later, but not before they bore two daughters. The first one, my mother. The swindler doesn’t last; he gets himself killed in a back alley– gambling debt, throat slit and blood snaking down the street. You don’t want serpents in your garden.
My earliest memories are tomatoes in a windowsill, and me– a little girl longing to run in the wild vines of the garden, sitting on a stool watching her great-grandmother make biscuits while fruit ripens in a window.
“Beginnings,” Dani Shapiro writes, “are like seeds that contain within them everything that will ever happen.” Tomatoes in a window sill are the beginning of me. A little girl sitting on a stool waiting to run wild in the vines of the garden.