Mum has always been a devout gardener.
Last week my mother made three new additions to her yard – an apricot tree, a plum-tree and rose flowers.In an already crammed garden, these freshman plants will sit beside staple backyard figures that have been part of the Robertson fabric for years. The lemon tree. The cherry tree. The mint and parsley patch. The apple tree. Fig, peas and tomato plants. They all have their place in prodded soil that surrounds the fence line.
There’s always been space for a garden at our place.
As a kid I can remember eating cucumbers in the backyard, which were cut fresh from the plant. We’d sit on the lush grass during the summer, add a pinch of salt and eat endless amounts of cucumber. Why cucumber? Don’t know. Mum is adamant it was a family favourite when she was growing up. This I can verify. My grandma, Ana, has an even bigger garden. I would spend summers with Baba (Macedonian for grandma) doing the same thing.Eating cucumbers. I’d help her pick the ripe ones and collect them in big red buckets. I’d also help eat them.
It’s easy to see where Mum got her gardening chops.
Mum was born in a small village called Brusnik located in the south-west region of Macedonia. The closest city is Bitola, an industrial and agricultural mecca. It’s the third largest regional city in the country with 122,173 people living there. Mum had two sisters and they lived in a two bedroom house with grandma and grandpa right in the heart of the village. They also owned 10 acres of farmland at different locations – a 20-minute walk from home.
A day on the farm would last 12 hours during the summer months. The air was warmer and light was plentiful. During the winter no work was done because of the snow. The family would wake up at six in the morning, load up the donkey with mountain water and start work. On their many acres Mum’s family had a plethora of vegetables and fruit plants to nurture. It was a cocktail of strawberries, cherries, grapes, pumpkins, onions, garlic and tobacco leafs. My grandpa, Kosta, would take care of the most arduous tasks often digging trenches for irrigation and fixing damaged plants caused by stray dogs. Baba Ana, Mum and her two sisters, Sonja and Brenda, would help manicure the crops – weeding, trimming and pruning. Less physical but by no means less demanding. They too would toil on the farm for 12 hours.
Each acre of produce had different demands. The strawberry acre, for example, needed to be pruned, worked, dug out, weeded and watered until they flowered. This process could take up to six months. The farm became part of daily life. When Kosta was not working his security guard in the village, he was working and toiling on the farm draped in his blue overalls and western plaid long sleeve shirt. Even after work, if there was time, he would head to the farm and work. When strawberries were ripe and ready to eat the family would take their donkey to the farm and load up five to six hand-woven baskets full of the heart-shaped fruit. They would make 10 to 15 trips back and forth. Normally it would take a day just to get the fruit back home. Once they got it there they would have enough strawberries to last a whole summer.
At home in the village, Mum would accompany Kosta at the local market, which was held twice a week. Family vendors would battle it out to try to have their fruit and vegetables sold.
“We took pride in our fruit,” said Mum. ” Even if someone would compliment the color or the taste, it made us feel good.”
Mum said the leftover strawberries that never got sold would turn into jam or go on the compost heap if they were deemed a fail.
Of the many crops grown on Mum’s farm, tobacco leafs entailed a two-step process. The first step, of course, would be to grow the plant. The second would be to dry the leaf. This would be done at the house not the farm. Mum said, they had quite a big tobacco stash in their village house. The tobacco would sit perched on big thick nails, more like stakes, that drove deep into the house walls. The leafs would give off a pungent smell that would overpower kitchen aromas. Baba Ana took care of the tobacco leafs inside the house.
One day she was hammering a stake into the solid wall, preparing for more tobacco leafs. Without any notice hundreds of yellow European Wasps flew out of the stake hole. There was a wasp nest behind the wall but inside the house. This was new. The family did not know of the nest. As the army of wasps flew out of the wall, they started stinging my grandma – one, two, three. She was stung ten times. In the neck. On the arm. On the chest. Within minutes Baba Ana was on the floor and had trouble breathing. The wasp bites started to blister. Grandpa Kosta was in Australia at the time. My mum and two sisters were around and got her up on her feet walking toward the hospital in Bitola.
As soon as grandma was outside she started vomiting and looked weak.
“She was white and not herself,” said Mum. “She was sweating and talking non-sense.”
It was then Mum rounded up the donkey and the three sisters threw Baba Ana up on top, body full of blisters. They headed toward the hospital with grandma on the donkey. At that point, Mum realized an ambulance was needed. But Brusnik had no telephone wires. So they could not call an ambulance which amplified the panic. She ran to the next town, Dejo, a stiff four-kilometre run, to get to a phone. They had phone lines there. Her uncle worked there as a tailor and was surprised by her visit that day.
” We need an ambulance!,” Mum said. So he called for an ambulance.
Mum ran back to Baba Ana and she was still slumped over the family donkey. She appeared to be getting worse. The ambulance finally arrived and they reached the hospital just in time for grandma to receive the anti-venom.
The doctor remarked, “if you had of arrived three minutes later, your mum would have died.”
The timing was quite remarkable. To think it all began because of a stray nail that hit deep into a wasp nest? All for a tobacco leaf. Back then farming was part of Mum’s life. It was her family’s life. It’s what they did. Gardening was embedded in Mum at an early age and she has continued her Macedonian gardening practises here in Australia ever since.
From many years as a kid learning the craft of nurturing plants on her family farm, to creating a farm-effect in her 10-square metre suburban backyard, gardening will always be part of Mum’s life.