*Note: This was a post that I had meant to write months ago, immediately after the summer gardening season, but I never got around to it. So now, it’s a memorial to one of the most hard-working people that I have ever known.
This is for you, John “Jack” Caruso.
In my youth, my Father spent lots of time tending to our personal garden over the summer months in Northern Maine. My brother and I were however too lazy to help in any discernible way, and to subsequently learn a life lesson about hard work and dedication in the process. We sure did enjoy eating the fruits of his labor though!
As we grew up, so did Travis and I’s eagerness to cultivate a garden of our own, but we lacked one primary ingredient: land.
Fortunately, I found it in the unlikeliest of places. While I was married, I asked my then-landlord if I could grow some vegetables in the flower bed around the duplex at which we lived. She was always such a chill person, and immediately said, “Go for it!”
I bought four or five bags of Miracle-Gro soil, spread the “black gold” out, then planted my all-time favorites: Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Carrots, and Peas. I waited the requisite week for any sprout to emerge from their slumber, and sure enough, I finally saw them–
–all two of them.
The next day proved even worse, as a massive rainstorm washed the life out of the flower bed (and along with it, my hopes and dreams). While I surveyed the flooding, I turned to notice the rather finicky patch of grass between the driveway and dual storage shed. I figured it was worth a shot and asked my same chill landlord if I could instead use that patch of grass. She was cool as a cucumber, and soon enough, I began to replant the very embodiment of her personality.
I borrowed a co-worker’s tiller, and off I went; planting small amounts of the same four favorites: cukes, tomatoes, carrots, and peas, plus a few other things, and I was off to the races. The garden benefited from the freshly turned over grass’ nutrients, and everything grew fairly well considering I was greener than my thumb.
Since I was virtually inept, I used a lot of growth charts, tips & tricks, and cautionary tales from the internet, and luckily; I didn’t kill everything in sight. One of my favorite tips was to prevent watering with cold water during the day; it sent the plants in shock and stunted their growth. And with my schedule at work only releasing me after 3:30 PM (when the sun was high in the sky), I wanted to water throughout the day, and so I made sure that the water was as warm as possible. I achieved this by filling a large flimsy plastic basket with water, leaving it in the sun during the day, and then using it as ammo for my watering can in the afternoon.
This inaugural year of gardening will forever be immortalized in The Guttersnipes Comedy Video: Jamie’s Garden.
All said and done, the summer of 2012 was a very fruitful one. Near the end of the year, a co-worker, Linda, had asked me if I’d be interested in helping her and her partner the following season to maintain their garden. It had become too strenuous on their bodies to continue all the tilling, bending over, and the like. In return, they would give me half of their growing space to plant whatever I wanted. I hesitated for a second, because I had such a great garden on my own, but decided to assist them as it was the right thing to do.
It was at this moment that I met Jack. He was a dirty, sarcastic old man, but he was also kind-hearted and hilarious. He’d often tell me of his stories growing up; opening the grocery store at which he worked as a young man. He’d brag about being able to put away a thirty rack of beers, then get up the next morning at 3:30 AM and open the store. Meanwhile, he’d offer to switch shifts with his co-worker buddies (who also partook in the drinking) on the days he didn’t open, so they could all have a great time. Nevertheless, the other guys would show up late or call in for their shifts at 11:00 AM! Naturally, he had then given them copious amounts of shit for it.
The prospect of such a symbiotic process was exciting; I remember buying a spaghetti squash and some tomatoes from Linda a few years back, and remarking about how large everything had been. They spoke of their success highly and rightfully so. I imagined growing all of the cucumbers and tomatoes that I could ever eat (which is way more than you think).
The very next year, I began what was one of the most challenging years in all of my life. I not only had a full plate but was spinning half a dozen full plates. I was in my second-to-last year of college, I had The Guttersnipes, was finishing the post-production on my first short film, and was still married with stepchild, all while working full time, and cultivating two gardens. The quantitative tasks proved to be quite the challenge, but I was more or less able to manage the workload. If you ask me how I would be unable to even venture a guess.
The garden didn’t do as well as advertised during that first summer of 2013, and the three of us hadn’t known why. Jack had mentioned that only a few years ago, the fruit had been gigantic. What was great though, is even though we had a smaller yield than expected, I received something much more important than just veggies: I had two new friends.
All the while that summer, I spoke of this opportunity to my brother and he too expressed interest in helping out, so that he could grow vegetables in the ground. See he had done a small window planter with a few things before, but nothing to this scale. By the end of the gardening season, Travis was invited to the annual bonfire in the middle of the garden, and what was once a collaboration of three, grew to four.
Over the winter (into 2014), we didn’t see much of each other; I went back to making videos and such, only visiting a few times during the cold season to clear the roof of snow or to shovel the steps.
The summer of 2014 was a different one. I wasn’t living in the same apartment, so I didn’t have that small plot of land in front of my old place on which to grow, and The Guttersnipes had already run its course. Nevertheless, food production ramped up again in the spring/summer, even if my classmates and I were in heavy post-production for our Senior short film, The Tale of the Three Brothers (and the documentary I co-headed) until May when they both premiered. After graduation, I used this newfound time to put everything I had into that garden.
Travis was there too, so it made the days where I couldn’t go much easier to swallow. I felt like I had let Jack and Linda down on those days. Some of my work shifts proved enough to deter me from going to the garden, but I fought that urge as much as possible, because the work had to be done, and I loved doing it. There is nothing more cathartic than digging into the very Earth upon which we live. I always came out of the garden feeling like a million bucks… but also in pain.
Travis definitely out shined me in work ethic. He was able to go nearly every day, and while I felt slightly jealous in a competitive way, I knew it was necessary, and I was grateful for Jack and Linda’s (and the garden’s) sake.
Yet with all of the hard work between the four of us, the garden was still lacking. For some reason, the glory days of the record-setting vegetables in this garden were done.
We had tried everything: “horse shit” & “chicken shit” (as Jack would call it), we had tilled more frequently before, during, and after the gardening period so the ground was soft, and even tried adding more bagged soil to the mixture; but none of it worked.
This was also the year that Jack and Linda had bought some loam to fill in some bare spots within the grass near the paved driveway. Or that was the plan…
We left the mound of soft soil there for so long, that it completely killed any of the grass beneath it, and instead left the exact thing we were trying to avoid: a massive bare spot.
So… Jack said to till it since it was close to the garden, and we’d made it “the addition,” MUCH to Linda’s chagrin. Originally, when I started working with Jack and Linda, the garden was twenty-one feet by forty-two feet. But Jack, Travis, and I had a running gag; we’d slowly but surely add a little more size to the garden each year. The annual expansion was never a planned thing– hell, we didn’t even talk about it; it just happened, and we all chuckled while doing it. Linda wasn’t stupid, she’d notice every time, even if it was a foot more on one end.
The addition was ugly, but boy oh boy, did shit grow there! Just like my mini patch at the old apartment, it was freshly turned virgin soil on which the vegetables could feed. But what about the main section?
Finally, we remembered an option that Jack had mentioned last year. If we took soil to the University of Maine, they could analyze it and see what nutrients the soil was lacking. So we did just that, and found out that we were short on two of the three main ingredients for plants to flourish. We found the exact fertilizer we needed; so I added it to my Amazon cart, and during the spring of 2015 we sprinkled it per the instructions on the ground before we tilled.
We all questioned the very small amount that the bag suggested us to use, but–
Holy motherfucker did it work!
I had finally felt like we deserved the high regard Jack and Linda had held for us. We thought we were doing something wrong before, but it wasn’t all of our fault! Whew! What a relief.
Well by this point, our friendship had grown much closer. Linda would often invite us to stay for dinner, and we’d eat like we just escaped Guantanamo Bay. I especially loved her homemade pasta salad. I’d devour that at every chance I got. Linda had so much leftovers, that every meal was a veritable buffet of main dishes, side dishes, fruits, dessert, and of course: lots of fresh veggies.
Travis tended to the off-season work more than I did from this point forward. He’d be the one to visit during the winter (and rightfully) gave me shit when I didn’t do the same. I’m not sure why I didn’t go there more often; I enjoyed their company, but I guess it was the notion that they were always there– much like when some adult kids don’t visit their parents and grandparents until something bad happens.
Travis and his girlfriend Bree went so often, that they took out Jack and Linda’s trash and recycling weekly, mowed the lawn, shoveled the roof and stairs, and much more. And, they would housesit! He was DEFINITELY making me look bad!
I decided that I would change this for next summer. In 2016, I went to visit them more frequently, even before we began the gardening. It was also important to me because around this time, I had decided that I would leave the State of Maine to a yet-undetermined location to pursue my goal of becoming a filmmaker.
The past few “film-less” years since The Tale of the Three Brothers had pulled me into a deep depression, and my new job at Verizon wasn’t cutting it, even if I was making more money. I had to make the jump, and I was researching different locations around the country, specifically ones that focused on movies. On the list was Atlanta, New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles. I had never been past New York City, let alone flown in an airplane. No matter where I chose to move, I planned on making this the best summer of gardening yet.
We began the gardening by getting rich horse manure– er, excuse me, horse shit, from our friend, Ralph. We tilled it into the ground, and formulated our blueprints for which vegetables went where. Then, we began the planting process.
Since I had planned this post, I had thoroughly documented the summer in photographic form:
Jack’s health had been declining for years now, and with this year in particular, his eyesight and hearing dropped precipitously. It was a hard thing to watch, the type of thing usually reserved for the families of the cancer-striken. Having been on that side of the glass, I knew it wasn’t an easy feeling to have people keep a close eye on you.
Jack also hated that he couldn’t help out in the garden. The first year I worked with them for example, he was still in the garden along with Linda and I, planting and keeping a watchful eye; a true Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid.
And we all knew he wished he could do more, so we’d still make sure to get his opinion when we could. He was immensely crucial to our success in the garden, and we made sure that we let him know it.
As the season went on, I knew at some point soon, that I would have to break the news of my travels to them. I had only told a few people, because I wanted to wait until I had chosen a location first. But in my heart it was always Los Angeles.
Within the first full month of planting (May), I broke the news to them. I told them that on the First of November, I’d drive across country to California. One of the main reasons I would wait until fall was that I wanted to ensure I could help out this entire season. And I told them that fact, but I could still see the pain in their eyes. They were happy for me, but knew that it would be difficult to continue the garden, even with Travis. The four of us were a strong team.
I worried about how long Jack had left. Often, I’d find myself wishing I could heal at least one of his issues: the eyesight, the hearing, or the newest ailment this year; migraines. That way he could still somewhat function. After the gardening season ended, I went over as much as humanly possible, raking leaves and crab apples or helping out with computer issues; but most importantly, just spending time with Jack and Linda.
As I sit here now in North Hollywood writing this, there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think of one of the many people I left behind, and Jack and Linda come up often. Our goodbyes were sincere, and we all knew that at that moment, this was the last time Jack and I would see each other.
My brother and I learned so many of those life lessons that we chose to miss out upon in our youth. Not only did we absorb the tricks of the trade, from the “Jack of them all,” but we now understood what it meant to work in unity; helping others achieve a common goal.
But Jack’s not in pain anymore, and that’s comforting. Wherever he is though, he’s undoubtedly critiquing the others’ work, all while wearing a shit-eating grin. And I hope that they’re ready for him.
Thanks for everything, my sweet, crotchety, and hilarious surrogate father.
Rest in Peace, Jack.