In 1986, when my father moved into his new home as a young bachelor in Werribee, his neighbours Brigitte and Larry took him under their wing. They helped set up a letterbox, took him on fishing trips and — not long after — gave him his very first fruit trees.
One day, he found a bag of French beans pegged to his clothesline. He asked Brigitte about them but they weren’t from her. Then over the back fence, they saw beans growing along a wire trellis. Dad stopped by his anonymous benefactor’s place to leave a thank you note the next day. That was Moya — someone who came to be an ‘adopted’ grandmother to my brother and I. “If it weren’t for the French bean connection, she and I wouldn’t have been friends,” Dad tells us.
It’s taken years to build Dad’s new garden. “Everything’s organic,” he never fails to remind us.
Over the years, Moya and Dad shared harvests and many meals. Moya would swap her lemons, lemongrass and aubergines — which she loved for their purple star-like flowers — for Dad’s zucchini, chilli, peaches and apples.
After marrying my mother, Dad invited Moya and her dear friend and neighbour Toni over to meet her. They joked about building a gate in their fence. Years later, Mum would ask Moya for advice on anglicising my baby brother’s name.
I remember summer evenings at Grandma Moya’s, combing the grass for salvageable apricots as the sunlight trickled away. The ground was awash with gold and despite best efforts, the soles of my sandals would turn sticky with juice.
Dad wanted to climb the apricot tree, but Moya always managed to stop him. On those nights, we returned home with four, five bags of apricots — an annual tradition until we moved away when I turned nine.
Teens living nearby had been switching off the power to our home every winter for a decade. As a child, I thought being plunged into darkness was an adventure. I hadn’t known that we were the only home targeted. But when rocks shattered windows in our front living room, metres away from my brother and I, my parents decided it was the final straw.
To our new home, my parents brought cuttings from the ‘pom-pom’ tree, a wedding gift from Moya and Toni. It’s taken years to build Dad’s new garden. “Everything’s organic,” he never fails to remind us.
Grandma Moya’s apricot tree is long gone, but our bond — which grew from a shared love of French beans — lives on.
Whenever our friends’ parents visit, Dad would take them on a tour, proudly pointing out each tree: apricot, fig, loquat, pomegranate, cherry, apple and peach. In spring, our garden bursts with choi sum, boy choi, gai lan, lemongrass, chives, spring onions, thyme, sage, Vietnamese basil, Vietnamese mint and English mint.
Mum jokes that Dad spends more time talking to his plants than to her. He jokes about donating fruit to the birds and rushes to free any caught beneath the nets that protect his cherries. My aunt brings her half-dead orchid to Dad for ‘ICU’ — it survives. Family friends from across town give him heirloom seeds, chilli plants and Chinese indigo. Mum makes kueh seri muka (a traditional Malaysian dessert) with the latter. One summer in my teens, my parents and I spent days peeling Chinese shallots. They were sliced and fried until golden, for sprinkling on noodles and congee.
Here, we are not as close to our neighbours, so we give our surplus produce to friends and family. Before Dad retired, he gave curry leaves and chilli to his Vietnamese and Indian colleagues and lemongrass and chilli plants to his Belgian boss. “I converted him to chilli,” he laughs.
A year ago, when my parents visited family in Malaysia, I was left alone with Dad’s garden for five weeks. I spent the first week rescuing wilted vines and throwing mouldy peaches and moth-damaged apples into the compost. I donned gloves to avoid touching the spoilt fruit and cursed the tiny flies. Slowly, I learnt to appreciate the rhythm of my father’s garden, the pleasure of picking cherry tomatoes from the vine. I learnt to appreciate his patience and the growing of food as an act of love and generosity. I wrapped close-to-ripe figs in mesh, and post photos on Instagram with the advice: wear gloves. your skin will itch and burn from the milky sap. (Yes, I learnt this the hard way.)
Last month, we visited Grandma Toni and brought a plate of freshly cut peaches and figs from our garden. The roses that bloom in our front yard, deep red with an intoxicating scent, grew from a cutting she gave us. She still lives behind our old home. Grandma Moya’s apricot tree is long gone, but our bond — which grew from a shared love of French beans — lives on.
Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, Peril, Meanjin and Lindsay. You can follow Shu-Ling on Twitter @hellopollyanna.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging Asian-Australian writers. Want to get involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_.
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