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Essay: I put fig-tree clippings in Dad’s pocket

Joan Denaro Collins with her father, Nicholas Denaro

Joan Denaro Collins with her father, Nicholas Denaro of Elmont, on Oct 5 1991. Credit: Sarah Merians Photography

We moved to Elmont in 1956. I was 4 years old. Elmont was a wonderful place to grow up. There were lots of kids, great schools and we had a big yard.

Having grown up a city kid, my father, Nicholas Denaro, believed that grass was not just to look at, but that children were meant to play on it. We played tag, badminton and croquet on our lawn. A white picket fence separated our backyard from a woods (later it would be paved for parking at Belmont Park). My friends and I hopped the fence and climbed trees.

My father had the most amazing hands. He could fix anything. He gave those amazing hands to his son, my younger brother, Frank, who also became handy around the house. But my father saved his green thumb for me. He grew flowers, tomatoes, cherries and figs and he shared his love of gardening with me.

Fourteen years ago, I went to a local nursery and purchased a fig tree for Dad for Father’s Day. My mother, Bridget Denaro, called it the best gift I could have given him. He planted it smack in the middle of the front lawn.

He loved that tree and enjoyed delicious figs every year, except just after Sandy hit in 2012. He was so disappointed when cold weather just after the superstorm froze all the remaining figs.

I read him a story about southern Italians who came to America in the early 1900s. Some brought dormant fig-tree clippings wrapped in newspaper. In America, the immigrants transplanted the clippings for a precious reminder of home. My father loved that story.

The bond between the tree and my father was so close that it seemed you could look at that tree and know how my father was feeling. In 2015, the tree oddly didn’t produce leaves or figs. “The fig tree is dead,” my brother said. My father died that later that summer of aspirating pneumonia at 97.

Before he was buried, I placed some clippings from another fig tree from our yard in his jacket pocket so he would always have a precious reminder of his prized tree and the Elmont home he loved. But in September, my brother called me to say, “You are not going to believe this, but Dad’s fig tree is alive!”

Like Lazarus, it revived and the tree gave us figs again.

We sold our family home of 61 years last year. We left behind Dad’s tree, full of figs waiting to ripen. We briefly considered taking it with us, but decided that his Father’s Day fig tree belonged in Elmont. The new owners graciously allowed me to take some clippings. Soon, I, too, will have a precious reminder of the Elmont home that we all loved.

Reader Joan Denaro Collins lives in Garden City.