The Garden of Him

Papa Leite

My father is a good man. Just ask my mother. Actually, if you spend enough time with her, she’ll tell you anyway, blurting it out while watching TV or holding out a bag of mini Milky Way bars to you. “Manny Leite’s a good man,” she’ll say.

The measure of a good man is calculated by many yardsticks. For my father, it was being a provider. It began with a home. First with a floor, eventually covered in the lightest of oak—“Only three-quarter-inch will do,” he’d say—that supported us, two-by-fours that became walls that surrounded us, and, finally, a roof that protected us—all built with his own hands.

Then there was sustenance. He cut a garden from what has to be God’s rockiest half-acre, situated behind our house. A grape arbor appeared first. Beneath it we lingered over many long, lazy meals, just we three. Plump bunches of grapes hung heavily, and my father would pluck some and feed them to my mother. The shaded table grew crowded with our expanding family my father brought over from the Azores. First my grandfather, then my uncle, my aunt, another aunt, and finally my grandmother and the youngest aunt of all. And, in time, their spouses and later their kids gathered round. It was understood back then that this half-acre was on loan: It was meant for me, my wife, and my children—a family that would never come to be.

A small vegetable garden replaced the arbor, way back in the ’60s when my father’s shovel was taller than me. A few parallel lines of plants I can’t remember. But as my father came to understand that I would never live there, that my future lay somewhere else—somewhere I wasn’t so asthmatic, wheezing at the confines of a small New England town—the plot grew, and he weeded more rocks from it. Enough rocks to make a wall around the side of the property. He planted tomatoes, onions bigger than softballs, waxy long red peppers, big bouquets of satiny-looking kale, corn with its incessant hissing of leaves in the wind, and potatoes. Always potatoes. My father loves potatoes. I love my father’s potatoes.

We had little in common, my father and I. Oh, we were similar in some ways. We didn’t like sports, and neither of us ever delved much into books. And, of course, we shared values and morals. How could we not? They were his and my mother’s, and they taught me well. But left alone, he and I didn’t have much to say to each other. How many times did my mother elbow me: “Go outside and help your father.” I’d pull back the lacy curtain to see him, the rototiller bronco-bucking in his hands, tearing up the earth for another year’s worth of vegetables. Or snapping suckers off tomatoes. Or tying up the grapevines that had come to take up half of the half-acre.

I wanted nothing to do with that work. It was manual labor. It was also Manuel’s Labor. I was convinced it wasn’t work meant for me. “I’m going to hire someone to do this when I get older,” I would tell my father, after I was forced by my mother to help lift rocks into the barrow and wheel them, weaving as if I was plastered, to the growing stone wall. He’d wince and shake his head. I thought he was being judgmental, even smug, but my father isn’t a smug person. I see now he was wounded that I didn’t find value in what he held so sacred.

Gardening wasn’t a luxury for my father when he was growing up. It was survival. Back in the Old Country, if you didn’t garden, you didn’t eat. Small squares of land, no bigger than our front cement porch, would have to supply a family of seven. I think he always held the fear of going hungry again.

I don’t know what it was that seized me this year to want to create a big garden. I’m a lousy gardener. But there I was, overseeing the construction of four huge raised beds. Annoying J.D., the carpenter, with my constant comments, my million little adjustments. Aggravating Ron, the yard guy, with questions about exactly how organic his organic soil was. Bullying The One into planting the rows the way I wanted them—the way I remembered my father planting his.

What I’ve never told The One in 23 years is that I understand plants far better than I’ve let on. For two or three summers beginning when I was 13, my parents sent me to work on a farm as a way of, hopefully, combating what we later learned was terrible depression. I’ve never copped to my understanding so I could avoid work. But there I was, standing in front of three beds The One and I had planted, a fourth waiting to be seeded, and I felt something. I felt something of my father in me.

It was the potatoes, my father’s potatoes that he gave me to plant, that did it. I had fantasized they were potatoes that had been in our family for 25, maybe 30 years. But their lineage goes back only a few years. I began calling him, asking how deep and how far apart should I plant them, sending photograph after photograph, asking for the precise places to cut through the tubers so I could maximize my yield. The thought that in about 75 days I would be eating potatoes that were related to those from that half-acre of rocks back home moved me something fierce. And it filled me with awe and guilt and closeness. I blubbered on the phone, eyes nearly swollen shut, snot running down my face, a knot burning a hole through my throat as I spoke to my father. I felt connected to this good man. I began to appreciate the lure of the garden, understand the pleasures he found among the plants. Unlike writing, my trade, whose harvest at the end of the day is never guaranteed, gardening always promises something. There is no such thing as gardener’s block. Nothing wishy-washy, no doubt or self-recriminations. You plant, you hoe, you feed, you weed, you harvest.

When I go out to the garden, I think of my father. It’s a contemplative time when I hoe my worries, weed my discontent. I wonder what my father used to mull over when he was alone in his garden when I was younger. The strange sadness and fear that gripped me? My possibly being gay? My imminent departure, “as soon as I turn eighteen, just you watch,” which I never ceased to remind him of? I’ve never asked. A man should be allowed his mystery. Each morning, bent over these beds, I marvel at how the broccoli has shot up another three inches. How two or three more shoots from my father’s potatoes have wormed their way up through the soil. How the tomatoes need, yet again, to be staked because they grew so quickly. How the cucumber tendrils and leaves must be woven through the fence as they climb, creating an eventual wall of green.

Yes, my father is a good man. Not so much because he has been a good provider. He proved that long ago. But because he holds no resentment that it has taken me 40 years to come around to the simple act of following in his muddy footsteps. I frantically, obsessively want to know what he knows, because his garden, which at one time crowded out the backyard, grows smaller each year. It’s now a mere two rows, as long as I am tall. A few potato plants, fewer tomatoes, and even fewer peppers. I want, no, I need so much for my father’s spirit and his thrill of the garden to live on in me. I have no child or legacy. This garden is the closest he will ever get to a grandchild. Or to something that, though not spun from his DNA, descends directly from him.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

David Leite's signature
  1. Papa Leite says:

    Dear Son,

    Thank you for the great tribute for Father’s Day. It was very touching, emotional, and laced with lots of smiles, pride, and gratitude. The photo of me in the backyard at age 40 isn’t bad, either!

    So, it took 55 years for your gardening genes to kick in. Hey, better late than never. I can think of no one more special on this earth to continue my gardening legacy.

    You have one Dad, I have one son. What a team. Oh, yeah, Mom is part of this great team, but you and I are “The Guy Team.” Can you see her sitting next to me and smiling? Can you hear her saying, “Way to go, Davey?”

    God bless you always, and thanks again for these special writings of your heart! You’re one special kid. Our kid!

    Love in Christ,


  2. Anna Engdahl says:

    Beautiful article! No writers block today. And it is a thrill to be able to produce your own food.

  3. JudithNYC says:

    You have me bawling again, David. What a beautiful post. And even though I don’t know either of you, it makes me happy that Papa Leite can read this tribute and know how much you appreciate and love him.

    • David Leite says:

      Yes, Judith, I’m very grateful Papa Leite is well and active. So many of my cousins lost their fathers recently, and it hit us all hard. I’m happy my dad and I are able to have this exchange.

  4. Betsy says:

    Loved this! It reminded me so much of my own father, a teacher who always had a garden, and like your father, my Daddy’s gardens got smaller as he aged. But I can’t let a summer go by without at least a few tomato plants and maybe peppers and squash. I miss my father every Father’s Day, so please give your Dad a hug from me.

    • David Leite says:

      Betsy, thank you so much for your kind words. I will definitely give Papa Leite a hug for you. I was just there (under the sad circumstance of a funeral for an uncle), but he and I spent some time in his quarter-acre of rocks looking at his gorgeous potato plants!

  5. Martha in KS says:

    You’ve written about your Mother, but not much about your Daddy. He sounds like a great guy. Thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to see the fruits of your & The One’s garden labor.

    • David Leite says:

      Dottie, I know! And I thought it was about time. He is a great, and I never really appreciated it. I think writing the book is helping me see him in a very different light.

  6. David,

    Another beautiful entry. The second time I’ve teared up reading your raw, charming, candid words. I do hope at some time you will publish a memoir so that your readers can hear your voice in a longer arc, a symphony rather than a 3 minute song.

    And truly how happy I am that you included your Dad’s response. What a happy happy ending! I’m overjoyed and grateful to the goodness of the universe (and the goodness of the Leite family) that you and your Dad and Mom could still be connected intimately and being gay did not–ultimately–make it impossible for you to continue to share your lives.

    Hooray for you, hooray for Papa and Mama and hooray for the goodness of love in all of its arisings!

    • David Leite says:

      Sharon, thank you very kindly. And you will get your wish in the next year or so. I am indeed working on a memoir titled Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression. And as I mentioned to Martha, I think writing the book has put connected me more to my pops.

      I must be honest and admit my being gay definitely got in the way of our closeness. I refused to speak to my mother for many months after I got a cooler than cold reception when I told her. And, later, things were verrry bumpy when I told them about The One. But time and willingness do help–a lot. But thank you for your generous good wishes!

  7. Josephine says:

    Auguroni, Papa Leite!!! tante salute per oggi la festa del Papa e per cent’anni!!! what a beautiful story and heartfelt ode!!! bravo david!!! questo dimostra solo che il Papa e un bene caro e inestimabile. we should all hold our fathers so dear!! adesso, vi auguro continuare a riscuotere tanti grandi successi e la massima buona fortuna a Papa Leite, David e tutta la famiglia!! ciao, amici!! un bacione e con affetto per sempre, la tua nuova amica italo-americana, giuseppina xoxo

  8. Josephine says:

    just beautiful!! xoxo

  9. Maralyn Woods says:

    A lovely post, David. Happy Father’s Day to your amazing dad.

  10. Lin says:

    Oh David there are so many things I wish I could have said or done while my father was still alive. I just was not able to see they needed saying or doing as I was yet too young. It does my heart good for you to be able to share these wonderful things and for him to show so much pride in what you have said and done.

    • David Leite says:

      Lin, I’m so sorry your young heart didn’t get the chance to say what it needed to say to your dad. It’s always so hard when a parent passes when we’re small. It was the death of two uncles two weeks ago–twenty-four hours apart–that prompted me to write this. I wanted Papa Leite to know with full certainty what I felt.

  11. Jamie Feldman says:

    That was beautiful, David. Your father must be proud and happy that you have come to appreciate the wonders of gardening. Gardening was one of my father’s passions and although he is gone for almost 20 years, I still have many memories of his labor. The asparagus was planted along the outside of the fence and it was good for a year or two until their golden retriever discovered that young asparagus was a doggies delight to eat. Then there was the pink carpeting that my father put between the raised beds to keep down the weeds. Discarded rugs did not go to waste. He made a gagootz (spelling?) with zucchini, pole beans, tomatoes, onions…And there was always a jar on the counter to pickle whatever he could- often pole beans stuffed between the cukes.

    My mother keeps a picture on the fridge of his last harvest that was piled on the kitchen table. The vegetables were ripe and perfect. I think Dad would be pleased to know that I also love to garden. How nice that your Dad is still there to connect with and learn from.

    Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads.

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks, Jamie. I love the idea of that freaking pink carpet. I want to get me some–and definitely in pink–for my garden!

      Do you mean cucuzza?

      And I’m getting wicked into pickles these days. I don’t have any of my own cukes yet, but when I do, I’ll be quick pickling away.

      • Jamie Feldman says:

        When I google the word gagootz, it also returns cucuzza- we’re both right! In addition to the ingredients I listed above, I forgot to add peppers and garlic. It all made a wonderful side dish, and sometimes my mother would make small meatballs and cook it in the pot with the veggies for a flavorful stew!

  12. A beautiful story and sentiments. Such a touching surprise to read your Dad’s letter. You must be so proud of him too!

    I planted potatoes for the first time in my box, they are in fact the only semi-thriving plant. I’ll think of you when I (with brown thumb luck) harvest some!

    • David Leite says:

      Danke, Rosemary. I’m very proud of my dad. And it’s such a weird thing, you know? I’ve always loved him, but he never held centerstage in my story–that was always cordoned off for the Ethel Merman in my life, Mama Leite. But in writing my memoir, so many wonderful, gentle memories of him popped up. I think it took the quiet act of writing, of rooting around in (forgive the pun) dirt of my past, to find him.

  13. Donna Rose says:

    Lovely, moving article made more precious because of your father’s response. There is some kind of solid earthy reassurance that comes from having a childhood connection with the soil. I grew up on an Apple ranch and had a dad who loved to work outside. Somethings we inherit are these deep, intangible gifts we can’t open until wisdom allows us to appreciate them.

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks, Donna. You’re right about the earthy connection to the soil when you’re a kid.

      My dad was also a consummate fruit grower. We had apple trees, each with three or four different kinds that he grafted onto the same trunk, as well as pear, peach, and I think a plum tree.

  14. Stephanie says:

    David, I’m one of your lurkers, and I just have to say thank you for the great Father’s Day tribute to your dad. Tears are flowing in Texas.

    • David Leite says:

      Stephanie, I’m glad you commented this time. You’re always welcome here. And please, no tears in Texas! I think the last thing you folks need is more water.

  15. Evangeline says:

    This. Was. Beautiful.

    Thank you. Since my mother died 12 years ago (12 years yesterday, in fact), and my beloved step-dad died last year, I tend to avoid the deluge of mother-father related things that floods the interwebs between mother’s day and fathers’ day. It just hurts too damn much. And all those advertisements when there’s nothing I can buy ’em anyway. But I love gardening and got swept up in your great storytelling and didn’t realize until the last line–that it was father’s day. And then I was so glad that I’d read it. This is what tributes to parents should be. This lifted me up. Thank you again.

    • David Leite says:

      Thank. You. Evangeline.

      You are more than welcome. I’m so happy that it lifted you, despite it being Father’s Day without a father to share it with. Stay strong.

  16. Randi K says:

    Beautiful writing and thoughts. Happy Father’s day to you, for all the nurturing love you show to everyone in your life.

  17. Beth says:

    “There is no such thing as gardener’s block.” Perfect. And the potatoes worrying their way through the soil.

    This is artful and lovely. You’re a good son.

    And damn, you’re a fine writer, David Leite.

  18. David Ryan says:

    David, thanks for publishing this. For those of us whose fathers are gone, it’s a reminder of what we once had. And for those whose fathers are still with them, it should serve as a reminder to say whatever is they feel they need to say before it’s too late.

    Enjoy the harvest.

  19. Becky says:

    David~ you are rich. And i am richer for knowing you.
    Thanks for sharing with us.
    ~ Becky

  20. Therese Goddu says:

    Absolutely incredible writing David! I was mesmerized as I read this…

  21. Dorie says:

    David, thank you for sharing this article with us. You are a very talented writer and this piece is beautifully written and made me feel as if I knew you and your family. Such a wonderful tribute to your dad and your family. I appreciate your honesty and openness and just felt I needed to say that! Thank you again for sharing this…..and another thank you for the work you do to keep this blog in my “favorites”. Bless you.

    • David Leite says:

      Dorie, wow. Thanks for all that. Well, I have an incredible team that keeps the recipe part of the site humming along, and I do the best to try (read: not really succeed) to post on a somewhat regular basis on my personal blog.

  22. Pat Motta says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. You know I value dad as though he were my own and so many times I’ve seen him working in the garden while ma was in the kitchen. He is a wonderful, thoughtful and sensitive man with tons of love in his heart for everyone. I so very proud to know him and know he has such a wonderful son as you who can appreciate a wonderful God fearing dad. I love you too, Manny.

  23. Patricia says:

    That was and is beautiful David. “Happy Father’s Day” to your Dad and to all the living Father’s. God Bless.

  24. Dawn E says:

    David, there is no doubt you are a gifted writer. I can see where you get some of your talent as your dad summed up his love for you so beautifully in his comment. Wow! Very touching, I cried.

  25. Barbara Lutnick says:

    Thank you for sharing about your dad. My Dad was also very capable of doing wonderful things. I miss talking with him very much! My father built his first boat by steaming the wood in the kitchen, then proceeded to build water skies from what he remembered. He built a barbecue in the patio, by himself, and cooked Sunday pancakes there for us all. He loved us and provided for us, always. He was born of tough stock and never let a project get the best of him. Wish he was still here, wish I was more like him. I admired his fortitude.

    • David Leite says:

      Barbara, sounds like you had one hell of dad. Built his own boat? My father and I are both water averse, even though he grew up on a tiny island in an archipelago scattered in the Atlantic like marbles. So the idea of someone building his own boat is wild.

  26. Lynell G says:

    Your lovely tribute to your dad reminds me of what my daughter once told me, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. Thank you for this beautiful write-up. It tugged at my heartstrings.

  27. jack klein says:

    Wow. I wonder if i had even less in common with my father than you with yours.

    But 25 years after his death, I still miss him ALL the time!!

    And I’m now 6 months older than he was at death.

    Freaky. Weird.

    A million thanks for the piece. Bravo!!

    • David Leite says:

      Jack, you’re welcome, sir. And you’re at the freaky place when you’ve outlived the age of your parent. Since I was a kid, I’ve always had this fear niggling on the underside of my brain that my head would explode the moment I grew even one minute older than my dad. It feels almost like betrayal or something. Oh, shit, more stuff to talk over in therapy!

  28. Susan says:


    There are no words. Beautiful! Beautifully written. I am crying, if that gives you any idea of how much I am always touched by and appreciate and enjoy your writing. “This ranks right up there,” as they say. I am glad you are finding the joy of gardening. Nothing makes me feel better than hard work in my yard and garden, and it is for just me. Literally nobody (unless I have company which isn’t often) but the neighbors on one side see it, and how I wish for a privacy fence on that side. As for the tribute to your father, I am happy for you and even in a way envious. I wish my deceased mother and father were good enough parents for me to miss them or want to share anything about them. Maybe someday, never say never. Thank you and Papa Leite for this.

    Love and Admiration,


    • David Leite says:

      Susan, thank you. I’m sorry that your parents weren’t the kind of parents that merit missing. I won’t say such nonsense as “find the good in them” or “I’m sure they did the best they could,” because you and I know that ain’t always the case. Sometimes parents suck at being parents. Hell, sometimes they suck at being people. What I do hope for you is that you can find your way to a place where you are comfortable with your feelings toward them.

      With much warmth, David

      • Susan says:

        Nice way to put it. I am very close, almost to that place. I have a happy, fulfilling life and I’m glad I survived my upbringing to be here now. Thank you for your understanding words, and for validating my feelings without candy coating.

        P.S. I have two potato plants in my garden. There were these unidentified plants growing from my compost areas, and one day I was doing the routine digging and chopping to keep it going, and there were some very nice red potatoes! So, I have been doing some transferring from the compost to the garden. Very interesting cycles happening here.

        Wishing you an awesome summer.

  29. Sheila Dey says:


    Very happy to read your post. You have a loving family and I am so happy you and your father are united. Made my day. My daughter and I mulched all our roses today because of our terrible CA drought. They were on the edge of dying since we can only water twice a week and it has been in the high nineties every day for weeks. I enjoy your blog.

    Sheila Dey

  30. Jeff says:

    No matter who they are, what they are, or where they are, our fathers never leave us. It takes a long time – but one day we get it. They go from myth to man. That can be the most enlightening of epiphanies. Thanks for the essay David – words I can easily understand! – J.

  31. Cheryl says:

    I enjoyed this very much! I am a gardener and just bought 36 acres to get lost in and hope that my son David will remember our good times in this place gardening.

    • David Leite says:

      Cheryl, first: Holy crap! Thirty-six acres. I’m aching with envy. Second: my greatest hope is that David has wonderful memories of you and he in those forever-unrolling acres so that he can carry them with him the whole of his life.

  32. Sarah Annie says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your father! You have me holding back tears at my desk David! My daddy is also an avid gardener and I remember many times getting roped into weeding, watering, shucking, shelling, you name it! While at the time I didn’t like it, I remember it all very fondly now. My dad gave us his time whenever we needed it and he shared his passion for gardening with us too. Now, as I try to coax things from the pots on my balcony, I call him whenever I need advice! I can’t wait to go home for vacation with my family and eat a plethora of never-ending beans from the garden along with tomato and cucumber sandwiches – because there are always too many cucumbers and tomatoes! :-P

  33. sue says:

    David, I just finished reading your article about your father with tears streaming down my face. What a beautiful piece. Isn’t it amazing how long it takes some of us to appreciate our fathers? You are so lucky that he is still alive to learn from.

    • David Leite says:

      Sue, thank you for this. I am indeed lucky that my father and I have been able to have something we share–the bonding over something as simple and pure as a potato plant is amazing.

  34. armymum says:

    Great David… You have me sitting here at work crying…. I’m having a similar situation with my dad. Alzheimers is kicking in and I am frantically trying to absorb his photography knowledge. Sunday afternoon was spent sitting on a stool by his feet at the corner of his chair, with him trying to explain the different settings on the camera. Took me back 40+ years to him teaching me how to figure out binary and multiplication tables… I’ve absorbed other things from him like math, Jazz, his love of cooking & collecting cookbooks (he sent me home with a huge box of his that he could barely pick up). I so understand that frantic obsessive feeling of getting a hold of that knowledge & the stories before I am no longer able. Great tribute, and your Dad’s comment was so sweet!

    • David Leite says:

      armymum, I think what you’re doing is wonderful. Your dad’s gifts will always live on within you, as mine will in me. I think so much of this fell apart, this generation-to-generation sharing, in the past 50 or so years. Very few of my cousins cook like their mothers, and my cousins’ kids are at a loss. If we don’t undertake this kind of stewardship, our entire family’s ways could be wiped out in the span of 20 years.

  35. Susan says:

    David, this is a beautiful tribute to your father and a reminder that we’re never to old to learn from them. It sure had me welling up as I recalled the fond memories I have of my own Dad. Thank you for this.


    • David Leite says:

      Susan, you are more than welcome. I just love how much my dad is moving center stage in the narrative of my life, and how it is really resonating with others.

  36. mliss says:

    Gardening teaches faith & patience, two undervalued virtues in the fast-paced world we live in. If you have the time, it’s one of the best therapy ever. Wonderful story, beautiful writing. Bless you both. Can’t wait for the book.

  37. Rick Casner says:

    Fathers and sons, a story as old as time. You’re a good man David Leite. Probably a bit like your dad.

  38. Linda says:

    Oh my, just what I needed this morning: a good cry! I was only looking for a good mayo recipe. I did not have what you describe here but I have been filled with hope and appreciation from a glimpse into your life for it proves we really can be as loving and kind as I hope for us as a people. Thank you so very much.

    Lin in SC

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Send it along. Covet one of those spiffy pictures of yourself to go along with your comment? Get a free Gravatar. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.


Daily Subscription

Enter your email address and get all of our updates sent to your inbox the moment they're posted. Be the first on your block to be in the know.

Preview daily e-mail

Weekly Subscription

Hate tons of emails? Do you prefer info delivered in a neat, easy-to-digest (pun intended) form? Then enter your email address for our weekly newsletter.

Preview weekly e-mail

The David Blahg Subscription

Enter your email address and get all of the The David Blahg updates sent to your inbox the moment they're posted. Be the envy of knowledgeable, savvy cooks everywhere. Sassy!


Weekly Subscription

Hate tons of emails? Do you prefer info delivered in a neat, easy-to-digest (pun intended) form? Then enter your email address for our weekly newsletter.

Preview weekly e-mail