VINNIE PENN: A Zen as it got, when dad gardened in his silk boxers in Morris Cove

Remembering dad when he'd garden wearing only his silk boxers.

Remembering dad when he'd garden wearing only his silk boxers.

Courtesy Vinnie Penn

If there is one thing I've never had any interest in it is gardening. That's not to say that I'm not a total sucker for a farmer's market.

Man, I can't resist one of those to save my life! I'm forever coming home with a random jar of marmalade, bar of soap, or some funky, exotic cheese.

This past year saw a lot of first-timers give gardening a go, many really tackling it in droves this past fall, planting for a spring they weren't even certain would come, as 2020 was such a vexing, frustrating — even scary — year. One friend, a Long Island transplant to New Haven, regaled me with his wading into the waters of gardening every step of the way. The tilling, planting, covering - all of it. He explained with gusto what he was hoping would show some signs of life by the time there were signs of spring, the reasoning behind blanketing a cordoned-off area of his garden/yard (this was news to me), and how he had to now keep a watchful eye for the animals that like to dig such things up in the dark of night.

Now, flowers are one thing. But, tomatoes and peppers and zucchini are quite the other. Many a family member and/or friend has a dedicated space in their yards for their homegrown produce, and over the course of #QuarantineLife I'll admit I thought about finally seeing if I had what it took.

My father had one in our backyard in Morris Cove in the early '80s and would while away hours methodically soaking the soil with a garden house, taking long drags on a Lucky Strike and doing it all wearing only silk boxer shorts. He loved that garden. He couldn't care less about what grew from his green thumb - he just loved the daily ritual of watering it at dusk. It was very Zen for him.

Which is, of course, how it should be.

My father tended to the tomatoes like he was back in Caprese, staring longingly out at the setting sun, occasionally glancing over at where he wanted to make sure he watered the appropriate amount and didn't over-saturate. He'd oftentimes mistakenly hit the clothesline and the curses would fly, as a wet clothesline could drip down on soil already watered to his liking. It was like he believed a few extra drops would result in misshapen tomatoes. And, boy, did he grow some misshapen tomatoes.

They'd start out promising enough, green and bursting with new life, just waiting on the day it'd be big enough to get sliced and served with some fresh mozzarella and a balsamic vinegar. But along the way deformity would set in. This did little in the way of ruining the taste of these succulent backyard beauties, but many a zinger grew right along with them, and were launched the old man's way.

We'd tease him to keep his eye out for contests with categories like "tomatoes that look like Jimmy Durante's nose" or "peppers that look like Fonzie's thumb."

The peppers were what I liked the most from my father's garden, but he couldn't pull them off as easily as tomatoes, for whatever reason. I never asked. I never stood alongside him as he watered the garden, as I was well aware that not only was this part of his evening ritual, but that it was very meditative to him. He wouldn't have wanted one of my typical 20-questions about the whole endeavor.

Or maybe he would have. I'll never know. Maybe he'd have loved to talk about it, to give pointers and to have me take over that garden one day. I surely showed no interest in it then, but my father was of the generation where his offspring need not show interest in something for him or her to get a crash course in it.

Instead, his four children opted to give him this time, alone with his thoughts, tomatoes, peppers and cigarettes. Clad only in boxers and sporting a heck of a tan.

While I would have loved to have gotten some pearls of wisdom from him on gardening, especially as he had such an interesting way of passing on life lessons (on the rare occasions that he chose to), they'd be useless to me today. The wooded area that surrounds my house in Branford already serves as a nightclub for everything from chipmunks to deer to fisher cats to foxes and even bobcats. We've been urged to keep our trash in our garage in recent years, thanks to a surplus in the bear population.

Those misshapen tomatoes would be like a gold rush to these wild animals here in the suburbs, and I surely couldn't fend off a single one of them armed solely with a garden hose and wearing silk boxers.