When I was growing up, my father and I lived in a neighborhood right outside of Pittsburgh. It was about fifteen minutes from downtown and as my father told me in his last months, “It was a good place for the both of us to grow up.” We lived in a little cape cod styled house that had three bedrooms. My father’s was on the main floor, along with the living room, kitchen, dining room and only bathroom, and the two tiny rooms that sat on either side of the top of the stairs with its slanted ceilings and slatted doors were, as we called it, “my apartment.” A benched toy box fit on the landing in between the two rooms, and in my child’s mind, made the space yet another room, of sorts. It was just enough for the two of us, and never felt lacking. The house sat atop of a fairly steep hill. Pittsburgh has those; extreme slopes and windy streets. In the winter time, it could be dreadful, but in the summer… well, summer was always good.
During those summer months, we spent a lot of time outside. Since we were situated at the top, we were also located just a couple of houses away from the corner of two intersecting roads. The two streets converged in just the perfect way so that they created an enormous green space and oasis for us in the back. Our yard connected with the cornering yard on the opposite street that housed a large farmhouse that once owned all the surrounding property. Our house and this house’s yards created an enormous green plot of land that merged together as one. There were woods to play in too that spread from this point and traveled down and out the length of the two streets. And because we lived atop, we had a view that stretched out for miles to the opposite side. The house had a little concrete porch placed off of the kitchen that had a small table with two chairs, along with my father’s wooden chair with its padded cushion where he positioned himself throughout the entire summer months as he oversaw that big beautiful backyard. It was by far, “the best room in the house.”
When I was around seven or so, my father started his own adventures with gardening and planted a few tomato plants. That year it started in a whisky barrel, but after a year or two, he moved to the side of the house and planted on either side of the pink rosebush that he had grown for me underneath my bedroom window. There was more space there than the limited wooden container. He even added green peppers to his growing area. My father was always surprised when he’d find me coming around the corner with a half-eaten tomato or pepper in my hands. I’d take them ripe from the vine and indulge. I loved them with their sweet juicy freshness and crunch.
My father wasn’t a good cook, by any means, but we ate a little better during those summer months. In my younger years, we had a tiny little hibachi that he would crouch down low and cook hotdogs and burgers on over the hot coals. I would stoop down beside him watching closely in wonder as the smells of cooked meat filled the gap between us. Our bellies would rumble together in hunger and anticipation. Our mutual love for summer outdoor cooking eventually made way to a proper grill, but the memories of that miniature charcoal burner and the scent of lighter fluid still bring me back to those joyful memories along with the reminder that bigger isn’t always better.
My father also made a mean scrambled egg sandwich. It was probably my favorite thing that he made. Maybe because it didn’t come from a box or can. Or maybe because it was just that good… I don’t know where he learned to make those eggs, but after my non-formal culinary education, I know that it wasn’t the right way. He would melt a little butter and then crack the eggs directly into the pan, allowing the whites to form before he added his milk and began to stir. This produced a sort of separation of whites and yellows to the end results. I had always thought that this was right. It was my dad, after all. He was the adult. He “knew” things… things that I didn’t. And yes, you should SEE the white parts. This is what I believed until I realized that most people scramble their eggs in a bowl with a whisk before they ever hit the pan. I don’t even think that we had a whisk, truth be told. We had a spatula, and that’s was good enough.
I don’t know… I still think that my dad’s way was the right way.
He would make his eggs, and then add them on top of the toasted white bread that came out of a plastic bag from the grocery store. Wonder, Town Talk; whatever was on sale that week. But where the true magic came into play, was when he added that freshly sliced home-grown tomato. He’d grab it off the vine; that fresh green smell traveling with it. Plump, red, juicy, as he slowly cut into it with his dull kitchen knife that was used to slice everything. Then maybe he’s even add a side of bacon to our plate! It was always delicious. And although my eggs are now “coup fresh” and the bread comes from the local bakery, there is still nothing better for me to this day.
My father continued to grow those tomatoes up until he was diagnosed with cancer. He even started planting tomatoes for our beloved neighbor, Aunt Phyllis, who lived next door. She would make salads or her delicious homemade tomato sauce with them. The last time that I heard, my father had twelve plants of his own growing on the side of the house. He would share his bounty with his friends and neighbors, and always save a couple for himself for his sandwiches. He loved doing this, and every year he would tell me, “You need to get your tomatoes in the ground before Mother’s Day.” It’s good luck!” And so, that’s what I do now. I plant our tomatoes in the dirt before Mother’s Day, and I continue to make my scrambled eggs… the right way.
Thanks, Daddy… for teaching me to garden and your ways. I love and miss you.