Celebrating Father's Day: Dad’s garden

Our garden, in the seaside suburb of St. Kilda, was completely haphazard and at the mercy of nature.

THIS WAS Joe Opas, the gardener.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THIS WAS Joe Opas, the gardener.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Most Western countries will be celebrating Father’s Day on June 26. In Israel, along with Mother’s Day, it has been replaced by something called Family Day (on a date that no one seems to know), but at this time of the year, my dad is very much in my thoughts.
He died more than 60 years ago, but nevertheless he is still a vivid figure. When I remember him, I see him in my mind’s eye squatting on our pocket-handkerchief lawn, trimming the edges with a pair of manicure scissors. He would be wearing an old football jersey that had seen better days, and the ever-present cigarette would be dropping ash down the front as he bent over in concentration.
This was Joe Opas, the gardener – the man who didn’t know a carnation from a rose, but still spent every Sunday morning tending his plants with tenderness and dedication, in Melbourne, where he was born and lived his entire life.
My father was a man of violent contrasts. Before the word “macho” invaded our vocabulary, this was the impression he tried to create – the strong, virile, masculine image. He almost carried it off, with his gutsy language and fund of rather off-color stories. It was only by accident, and to his extreme embarrassment, that it sometimes slipped out that he was really a scholar, with a vast command of Hebrew, Latin and Greek and a profound knowledge of the classics.
He had a brilliant mind that could hold its own with any academic, but he enjoyed the company of small-time prize fighters, even bookies, whom he numbered among the clients of his accountancy practice. His friends ran the gamut from Supreme Court judges to garbagemen, and they all called him “Joe.”
He always kept the tender side of his nature well hidden, in case it might be construed as weakness. Instead of quoting from the classics, he would sing me old Cockney music hall songs, and I grew up on “The Old Kent Road” and “My Old Dutch,” rendered with great gusto.
Our garden, in the seaside suburb of St. Kilda, was completely haphazard and at the mercy of nature. As far as I remember, almost nothing was ever planted, but whatever came up received royal nurturing.
Horse-drawn carts, which delivered ice, bread and milk, were still used back then, and Dad would hasten out to collect the fresh manure a thoughtful horse might drop near our house. “God’s gift to the garden,” according to Dad. It would be dug lovingly into the soil, with some ghastly fertilizer called Blood and Bone which he’d buy in sacks in the city. When he brought it home, its foul aroma always assured him a seat on the tram. In fact, when the wind was in the right direction, he could just about have the tram to himself.
No one ever loved a garden as much as Dad did, but it never occurred to him to study horticulture, plan it in any way or consult a book. What came up, came up, and he would fertilize, water, weed and prune everything.
I remember his excitement when an old climbing wisteria vine, which wandered all over our brick house, one year decided to blossom – magnificent lilac-colored blooms that hung down, perfumed and lovely, transforming our rather decrepit home into a romantic arbor. It only happened once, and he was quite resigned when in subsequent years there was no recurrence of the miracle.
Old pieces of iron and metal were always saved to dig around the roots of our hydrangea bush. Dad believed this enriched the color, and even if it was just a superstition, our hydrangeas were most unusual; one year they were bright blue.
Along the fence was a grapevine, adding glory to our wooden fence which had seen better days. There were pansies in our garden, gladioli, lilies, iris, cannas and hollyhocks. Sometimes vegetables would spring up – tomatoes next to a rose bush; sweet corn towering above chrysanthemums. Dad saw nothing strange about this – they all belonged in a garden and it made an interesting variety.
Only once do I remember Dad actually planting anything. He adored mushrooms and bought a sack of very expensive spawn. For once, he followed the directions exactly, inserting blocks of it into our lawn, and going out every day, impatiently waiting for results. They were the only plants that failed to materialize in our garden, but in the floor of the shed where the sack of spawn had temporarily rested, mushrooms pushed themselves up through layers of cement!
Many years ago, I saw a movie called Being There in which the late Peter Sellers stars as the gentle Chance, the gardener. As he stooped to pull up weeds in city streets and to comment on the neglected trees in the park, I thought of Dad. His garden was the way he could express his compassion and gentleness without risking his masculinity. It took me many years to understand my father – in fact, I have really only got to know him since he died.
The overpowering man of whom I lived in awe was really a very simple and loving human being. It would, in his vocabulary, be “sissy” to express sensitivity, but squatting on his haunches tending his plants was his way of showing that he wasn’t such a tough guy after all.
The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. dwaysman@gmail.com