Onion, Worms and Ali Baba

June 7, 2010

Today, I pulled out a handful of chives, those happy plants that seed mercilessly, never come out by the roots completely and keep away the Damn Rabbits and thought of my Grandpa Walencik.

Whenever I smell that oniony stink, I think of him. Not because he smelled of onions, but because he told stories about them – and about so many other things. My grandpa came here from Poland on a boat, one of those thousands of European immigrants. He would tell us he “stowed away” and my grandmother would yell from the other room, “He had a TICKET!” Grandpa somehow ended up in Harvey Illinois, which harbored a sizeable portion of the “Little Warsaw” that is Chicago. He worked on an onion farm when he was young and many times on the way to Gee Lumber, he would wave a hand to indicate the surroundings and say, “When I was little, this was all nothing! Nothing but onions!” On hot humid days, he would ask me, “Can you smell them? They’re still here, you know. There are still onions all around us.” In retrospect, it’s ironic that “Chicago” actually means wild, stinky onion, named for the native crop which ran rampant. I suppose that’s why Harvey’s cultivated crop did so well.

Harvey is blighted now, and that’s a polite way to put it. Since the collapse of the steel industry, Harvey has seen nothing but decline – corrupt leadership, abandoned and burned out homes, deserted warehouses and factories, empty storefronts. Now, I’m seeing more and more articles and news about reclaiming these areas for farming. Detroit has a powerful urban farming movement afoot and it makes me wonder if that could be a solution for Harvey and other areas nearby.

My grandpa, long passed, would like that. He’d wave his hand and say, “See all this nothing? When I was alive, it was something! Now it’s all nothing and onions again!”

He planted a vegetable garden every year, in the back patch next to the alley, between the garage and the fence. He also planted marigolds and other flowers. Then he’d sit out in a lawn chair woven with fiber straps, pop a warm Strohs and pour it so it would have a foamy head. He’d give me a sip too. The foam tickled, but I never cared for the taste. He worked in a steel mill for his “life’s work” but he was always a farmer at heart. A gentle man, a warm-hearted man. He told us about onions and stories about Ali Baba and a cat with a magic bag.

He also told us that worms fall from the sky when it rains. And I think he believed it.

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