Valley Voices

Finding purpose and independence in a backyard farm on Arthur Avenue

Tomatoes were among the crops grown by Pauline Sahakian’s father.
Tomatoes were among the crops grown by Pauline Sahakian’s father. Fresno Bee file

Every evening as the sun set, my father walked the rows of his backyard garden, shovel resting across his shoulders, safari helmet tilted over the frames of wire-rimmed glasses, irrigation boots leaving imprints with each step in the damp soil. He irrigated at dusk, arming the plants against the 100-degree heat in the Mediterranean climate of Fresno.

Water from the garden hose ran full speed, moisture packing the soil, coloring it from ash grey to mink brown. My father’s swift shovel opened and closed dams, guiding water up one row, down the other, traveling from Armenian cucumbers to zucchini, tomatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers. Sitting on the swing under the pine tree, I often kept my father company in the backyard, while he relived his life as farmer of a 40-acre vineyard in Kerman.

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Pauline Sahakian Picasa Contributed

Until he married my mother, Dad worked in an Armenian grocery store on Railroad Avenue in downtown Fresno. He saved his money and achieved the American dream of so many immigrants — land ownership. He was 45 years old. Ten years later, when bursitis and arthritis pain forced him to sell his vineyard, Dad purchased a home on Arthur Avenue in the Fresno High School area, and a four-unit apartment complex in the Tower District. He was now a landlord and handy-man — painting, plumbing, and doing electrical repairs. Yet, the importance of farming, providing food for his family, remained in his heart and soul.

In early spring, Dad tilled the soil in our backyard, turning the earth with his shovel like a John Deere cultivator, evenly spacing the rows for irrigation, mounds of dirt piled high enough to cover the seeds. His garden took up a quarter of the yard, boxed in by a cement walkway, the garage, a wood-slat fence, and the pine tree shading my swing-set firmly planted in the dirt. My mother’s clothesline along with grapefruit, orange, and lemon trees filled the other side of the walkway.

Every summer, his garden grew lush, green vines crawling along the mounds, dipping into irrigation rows, wide leaves hiding plump purple eggplants and thick-skinned zucchini, green-and-yellow peppers camouflaged within leafy plants, crawling vines of Armenian cucumbers, and hanging tomatoes plump as baseballs. Some evenings I trudged up and down the rows behind Dad. I tucked my fingers into the back pockets of his jeans and sloshed bare feet through the irrigation water rushing from a hose, creating waves and ripples to splash against the embankments.

“Slow down, slow down,” I would plead, my 6-year-old little feet slipping in the mud.

“Can you count the cucumbers?” he would ask, to divert my splashing. “Is it a bumper crop?” It was our game, finding and counting vegetables without lifting leaves or moving vines. Some evenings I carried a pillowcase as I followed him, stepping into footprints in the damp soil made by his sinking boots. He filled my “picking pouch” with the ripened vegetables my mother would serve for dinner.

The garden produced much more than we could consume. Aunts, uncles, neighbors, and friends who visited during the summer left with paper bags full of vegetables. And my mother’s kitchen table and refrigerator always seemed cluttered with bowls of ripened, washed vegetables. We ate “farm to table” way before the trend became popular.

For dolma, my mother kneaded ground lamb or beef with rice, chopped onions, and tomato sauce and stuffed it into scooped-out bell peppers, squash, and tomatoes. Then she lined a large pot with the vegetables, filled enough water to produce steam for cooking, and placed a plate face down on top to prevent floating. The pot simmered on the stove before finishing off in the oven. We ate Dolma often during the summer, sometimes topped with a dollop of madzoon, our homemade yogurt.

Mom tossed the Armenian cucumbers into a summer salad with red onions and tomatoes and a tangy vinegar and oil dressing. She also sliced cucumbers into the madzoon and thinned the sour cream-like texture with ice cubes, creating a summer soup, topped with a dash of garlic powder. My mouth waters as I remember the cold, cucumber-yogurt soup.

The eggplant from the garden became moussaka, a traditional Mediterranean dish of Greek ancestry the Armenians adopted. My mother peeled and sliced eggplants, soaked them in salted water, then lightly browned both sides in oil before layering with a tomato-meat sauce of lamb or beef and baking it. Another dish involved slicing the eggplant, dipping each piece into beaten eggs, and frying it until crispy and brown. We often made sandwiches with this egg-battered eggplant.

My mouth waters as I recall these meals, the aromas greeting me as I entered the house. But in those days, the smells embarrassed me. What did my friends know of stuffed grape leaves or fried eggplant or cold yogurt-cucumber soup? They ate macaroni with cheese, tuna casserole, and pot roast with carrots and potatoes. They ate meatloaf and buttered string beans, not stuffed bell peppers and tomatoes. We were different. If I complained, my father countered with, “Remember the starving Armenians and feel fortunate the earth is providing for us.” But in my childish consciousness, different meant not as good.

Today, I am proud to be the daughter of an immigrant farmer who understood that land sustained life. Work meant working the ground: planting, tending crops, and harvesting food. In this, my father found purpose and independence. In this my father took pride. All the years of his life, his heart remained a farmer’s heart as he walked the rows of his vegetable garden on Arthur Avenue, shovel slung across his shoulders, safari hat shielding his balding head from the San Joaquin Valley sun.

Pauline Sahakian, Ed.D. is a retired Clovis English teacher, Fresno State composition and education instructor, and UC Merced Writing Project founding director. She was the 1994 Fresno County Teacher of the Year, CA Teacher of the Year Finalist, and 2016 CSU Fresno Noted Alumni Award recipient.