— Nan Sterman
On this Father’s day, I am honoring my grandfather, Ed Miller. Grandpa Eddie, as we called him, is the reason I am a gardener.
In one of my earliest memories, I am standing in a “forest” of tomato plants. They tower over my head and I smell the musty fragrance of their foliage. Grandpa Eddie is tying the long vines to a stake and he reaches out to pick a big red one. As he bites into it, juices flow down over the salt and pepper colored stubble on his cheeks and chin. The expression on his face is pure delight.
Eddie’s Earliest Years
Grandpa Eddie was born in Russia in 1902, the youngest of 8 children. He was an orphan by age three. Some of his older brothers and sisters were married with their own children (they married and had children at much younger ages then). They were poor people but cared for him, each keeping him as long as they could afford before passing him on. Part of the time, he lived on the streets where he earned some money as a tin smith, making pots, pans, and eating utensils.
It was a bleak existence. By age 13 or 14, Eddie was desperate to leave. He wanted to join a sister who had emigrated to Chicago. But with no visa and no money (and probably no passport), his only way out was to join the Russian army. He wasn’t old enough but lied about his age. Eddie deserted the army when they reached a western port town and somehow made it onto a ship headed to Mexico. For several years, he lived in Mexico City. Eventually he “got” a passport (I suppose he pasted his picture into it), and crossed the border into the US. The actual story is much longer and more complicated but we’ll leave that for another time.
Eddie in America
Eddie headed to Chicago where he met a tiny powerhouse of a woman who became my grandmother. Eddie worked as a house painter and at one point, they owned their own paint store.
In the late 1940s, an older couple without children befriended my grandfather. Since they had no heirs and Grandpa loved to grow things, they offered him their farm. He gathered his wife and children to discuss the idea of moving to a farm. The family thought it was crazy and no, he shouldn’t accept the property. Many years later they realized their mistake. Not only would my grandfather have been very happy as a farmer, he would have become a very wealthy man since the farmland developed into Skokie, Illinois an affluent Chicago suburb.
Eventually, my grandparents moved to Los Angeles where Eddie continued to work as a painter. I remember being six or eight and helping him paint the wrought iron hand railings of the small apartment building they lived in and co-owned near downtown LA. The unit furthest in the back had a small garden completely filled by a majestic avocado tree. When the fruits ripened, we ate tons of avocados. My grandmother made what she called “avocado salad” which was basically avocado, onion, and hardboiled egg mashed together and spread onto bread. Whomever thinks they invented avocado toast is kidding themselves – my grandmother was making it more than fifty years ago!
Eddie and I Plant Gardens
After they married, my parents bought their first home near the LA Airport. It was small, maybe 1000 square feet on what then seemed like a huge lot. My grandfather planted his vegetable garden behind the detached garage. My mother tells me he planted radishes and cucumbers and other vegetables too, but it’s the tomatoes I remember, along with flowering sweet peas that covered the chain link fences, and fruit trees – peaches and apricots.
My parents’ next home was bigger and on a larger lot. They landscaped it fully, but I was driven to grow vegetables. I begged my mother for radish seeds which I planted in a neglected side yard. I’d only remember to water them on rare occasion, yet there was always a radish or two to harvest.
Looking back, I should have gone to agriculture school. Instead, the closest I could do was a botany degree, not that I regret it; I’ve planted gardens everywhere I’ve lived. And to my grandfather who had no education, it made no difference. Shortly after I graduated, he was interviewed for a home video in which he proudly (and somewhat misguidedly) described me as “a doctor of trees.”
Thanks to Eddie
Eddie was a hard working, soft-spoken man who absolutely adored his wife, children, and grandchildren. He lived into his mid 80s. In a conversation not long before he died, he told me there was just one thing he regretted about his life – he never became a farmer.
I don’t know where or how Eddie learned about growing things but I know my love of plants and gardens started with him. I too would have loved being a farmer, but thanks to my grandfather, I have a life richly filled with plants and gardens.