personal essay

In My Divorce, I Lost the Family Zucchini

published Jul 17, 2020
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When two people who once loved each other, pledged to share a life together, to grow together, decide to separate in divorce, many things are lost. There are big things; the things that are shared. Usually it’s money. Sometimes it’s a house, a car. Often it’s time, particularly with children or a pet. These are the casualties of any split, no matter how logical or amicable it is. 

You’re prepared for these losses; they’re understood to be collateral damage of the choice you’ve made to part ways. 

But funnily, you’re never prepared for the little ones. Things that, on paper, seem trivial and unimportant, yet somehow, hit you the hardest in tiny repeated ways, even in the bloom of happiness. Like unexpected thorns in a rosebush, drawing the smallest droplets of blood when you least expect it. 

For me, it was zucchini. 

My former father-in-law, Joe, was a man who worked with his hands. He made his living as a bricklayer, spending his days erecting buildings and making them beautiful. The results of his work were tangible; satisfying despite long days of literally backbreaking labor. And when he retired, he continued to shape the world around him, cultivating a garden that flourished more dramatically with every passing year. 

No average backyard gardener, Joe was a gruff, salt-of-the-earth man more apt to crack a joke with questionable correctness or complain offsides in an endearingly grumpy-old-man way about something he wasn’t actually driven to change than to display affection or sentimentality. He wasn’t really what you’d imagine as a nurturer — he gave it to you straight, and you could take it or leave it; no skin off his back. 

But in his garden, his edges softened in the haloes of the summer sun. His work-worn, rough hands became ones of support and strength as he plied the earth or nailed together his elevated beds. They became defenders as he weeded among the bell peppers on the ground and green beans on the ledge that he built into a retaining wall. They were gentle as he kept the basil from bolting in their beds and as he trimmed back his caged tomatoes. And they were firm but careful as he tucked into place the unruly tangle of eggplants, Black Beauties all, and those of sweet potato vines that bloomed mysteriously for later harvest.

However, even more consistently prolific than the Italian staples that served as his garden’s foundation were the zucchini.

They were striated, with a bright emerald lengthwise along the sides; a deep, juniper green banding on top; and bright chartreuse on the bottom. Like the watermelon he also grew, the zucchini had a tendency to be darker on the side exposed to the sun and lighter on the parts that laid on the ground. They swelled to monstrous sizes, hidden among the leaves and flowers of his garden. These zucchini became a bounty every summer, not just because they were grown with care, but because they were cultivated with intent.

You see, in the early days of my marriage, I often came home from work to gifts on my front porch in the summer. No card, no comment, no call. Just courgettes. 

Joe never wanted to impose on us as newlyweds in our first home; he didn’t want to be the pushy in-law who made himself an overly frequent visitor. He kept us at a distance, himself in the background, as he let his son start a new chapter of adulthood. 

However, that son didn’t cook. He didn’t really care to learn how to, and preferred the experience of eating out: having what he wanted appear like magic, having an expert manifest his dinner. In direct contrast to his father, he was white collar and enjoyed the finer things. He appreciated the labor put into those things but also, the distance he was privileged to enjoy from it. He did not work with his hands.

But I, the daughter of a chef, was filled with delight and ideas with these surprise drop-offs of raw material. I appreciated the lumpy, gargantuan squash more than I would have a finished casserole. 

In the crumpled up, plastic grocery bags of misshapen zucchini, I saw promise and opportunity.

Like Joe, the skins were tough at times, and thick and slightly bitter with it; in other batches, tender and sweet despite an unpresumptuous appearance. Their flavor was innocuous and mild, as zucchini is wont to be, taking on the characteristics of whatever it was cooked in. They didn’t taste like anything remarkable, and their behemoth size and shape were the only thing that set them apart from the conventional types.

But in the crumpled up, plastic grocery bags of misshapen zucchini, I saw promise and opportunity. It gave me the chance to experiment without investing in ingredients from the store — garlic and oil sauces, zucchini boats, stir-fries, and chips. I saw trust, a certain faith that his gift would go to good use, and that he believed I’d know what to do with the vegetables and feed his son well with them as I roasted, grilled, sautéed, and spiralized them. And I saw a faint glimmer of hope — a no-pressure, no-expectation hopefulness — that this quiet, lonely man might be invited to join us to partake in the fruits of his labor as a dinner guest.

As the years passed, he became more comfortable with dropping by just to hang out with his son. He began to use our home as a refuge from the domestic turmoil of an ungrateful, argumentative daughter and an opportunistic partner who preyed on his non-confrontational complacency. And as our own points of contact increased, the zucchini became a point of connection; instead of just being dropped off, we would talk about new ways to use the bounty, swap tips on how to cook or prepare them. So then for seven years, I did not buy zucchini. Zucchini was Joe’s domain — a vegetable, sure, but first and foremost in my mind, a gift, from one family member to another.

* * *

This year, I bought my own zucchini. 

It was the first time in nine years I’d done so, and two years since my divorce.

Our split was admirably amicable; we did what was right for one another and protected each other through the very end. Our families were not made to choose sides. In fact, we discouraged them from disparaging the other. We had simply grown apart into different people who wanted different things. 

Sure, he had always been the one who wanted his zucchini provided to him in its final form while I’d always wanted the freedom to choose, on a whim, where I took the zucchini, but this divergence became more pronounced as the years passed until it was unsurmountable. 

I couldn’t bring myself to buy or prepare zucchini that first year I was on my own. It took me by surprise that I couldn’t. I did not expect the sight of such a mundane vegetable as summer squash, neatly lined up in a row at the grocery store, to elicit such offense. 

I saw the face of my father-in-law in my mind’s eye in the display, the look of disappointment he used to have when he learned I bought produce he was actively growing in his garden, as if I stole from him an opportunity to show he cared. I heard his voice in my head, analyzing the crop’s quality as he turned each one around to needle at its imperfections.

I did not expect the sight of such a mundane vegetable as summer squash, neatly lined up in a row at the grocery store to elicit such offense.

It felt unjust, that what was once free and so freely given was now assigned a hard dollar value. That something that should be grown for me specifically and left on my patio was now clipped and polished and packed by anonymous hands. 

It was hard to reconcile.

But this summer, it was time. This summer, I went to the store and purchased zucchini myself: uniformly sized, brightly polished, and perfectly ordinary. I loaded up my reusable bags then made a tomato-based primavera sauce, roasted up medallions, baked them into breaded sticks, and chopped them up for stir-fry. They tasted exactly as they were meant to. They were still inoffensively sweet, juicy, and light. And I still loved them. 

I loved them as much as I always have and as much as I always will. Maybe even a bit more, for the memories they created and the generosity they stood for. Because they’re zucchini, and no matter how much life may change, they will not. 

In my divorce, I lost the family zucchini. But I do hope they’re doing well.