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I recently drove past the vacant lot where the roadside stand once stood. It's funny, what our minds choose to remember. Seems I'll never forget the mysterious old man and his shed.
It was in Groton, close to the Thames River, but the shed and its contents seemed to have traveled intact from Florence, Pienza or any Tuscan village. Italians bring a wonderful texture to Connecticut.
Over 40 years have passed since I did chores for him, yet I vividly remember the shed door creaking open. Inside, the afternoon sun struggled through smeared windows. Summer heat always aroused the strong aroma of fruit within those walls in a most pleasant manner.
Sturdy, stained bushel baskets were tossed in a corner, piled high. They spoke of plums, peaches and pears traveling from his backyard orchard down the dirt drive to the humble roadside fruit stand.
Long-handled tools, Old World implements of cutting and digging cluttered the floor and walls. Battered work gloves rested after years of fighting briars and thorns. Cultivators, stakes, trowels, metal buckets, wire baskets and watering cans filled every open space.
Old wooden vegetable crates, stacked haphazardly, bore bright labels with foreign names I imagined were from northern Italy. Dried plants hung from crossbeams overhead and my feet made no sound as I slowly waded through dusty sunbeams illuminating every speck of dirt on the concrete floor.
A difficult man for reasons beyond my understanding, an insurmountable language barrier guarded the distance between us. Speaking no English, he communicated with a fist full of crumpled dollars, explaining with his hands what he needed done.
He seemed to live alone and the complicated baggage of a lifetime had made him angry. Long and loud Sunday morning tirades in Italian from a second story window were legendary. They may have been heard across the river in New London. Something dark brewed within him.
An Italian immigrant settling in a new land, I wondered how often he muttered Connecticut's motto in his native tongue for reassurance: "Egli sostiene che i trapianti." He who transplants sustains.
Short, wiry, with a rough olive complexion, deeply creased by years in the sun, he took to wearing a wide brimmed hat. His thick cloth shirts and trousers were stained with the runoff of gardening. A crooked walk from years on his knees helped make his dark countenance and suspicious nature unnerving.
I remember his garden. Neat rows of basil, rosemary, summer squash, cucumber and tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes. The parcel was highlighted by a knobby arbor of aging grapes and surrounded by roses.
Years later, I remember his torment but I also remember his love for growing things. The garden truly was his salvation.
I imagine the shed after he passed on, tools laying listless, handles painted with the last prints of his dirty hands. Without him, they surely lost all interest in work, leaving nature to reclaim the garden, the last evidence of his existence.
Maybe his anger was borne of loneliness or regret. Maybe he feared being forgotten. Far from his Italian home, perhaps he didn't realize we all impact those around us in unexpected ways.
He needn't have worried about being forgotten. Siamo tutti lasciare una memoria con qualcuno: We all leave a memory with someone.
JOHN STEWARD OF WATERFORD, A RETIRED AIRPORT FIREFIGHTER WHO WORKS AT ELECTRIC BOAT, CAN BE REACHED AT TOSSINGLINES@GMAIL.COM