May 26, 2015
Jonathan’s Story
By: Diverse Elders

My Father’s Garden

by Jon Melegrito


Papa&JonOut in the yard are three dozen peat pots basking in the sun. Inside each pot is a bitter melon seed, planted weeks earlier. Helping to water these soon-to-be ampalaya (bitter melon) seedlings is three-year-old granddaughter Lilah. I tell her the seeds are from her great grandfather’s garden in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he lived for more than 20 years until he died in August 2005. My mother died several years earlier.

The seeds in the peat pots that Lilah is watering did not, of course, come directly from Biloxi but were saved from ripened ampalaya fruits from last season’s harvest. It’s a ritual learned from my father, dating back to the day he brought some seeds during his summer visits and helped me grow a garden. He told me to always save seeds for next season’s planting.

And so that’s how it happened over the years: seed begets seed begets seed begets seed. Whatever he learned about seeds and seasons growing up in a farm in the Philippines, he passed on to me and my brother.

I’m realizing only now how meaningful my dad’s visits were and the gardening lessons I am now passing to my own granddaughter. His love of gardening and my own boyhood experiences working with him in the farm are stories I’d like to share with Lilah someday.  These are stories that have helped shape and mold me into who I am today.

Melegrito Greg & Family 1975 Kensington MD 300DPI_copy2

After he retired as a school teacher, he continued to live a productive life – helping in soup kitchens, sharing the fruits of his garden with friends and neighbors, and leading bible studies in church. Thanks to Social Security and whatever savings he had, he was able to enjoy a measure of financial security that allowed him to give back to a country that gave him and his family many opportunities for a better life. That’s what he believed he fought for as a soldier in World War II.

It’s in that same spirit that I committed myself a long time ago to try to make a difference, in the same way my father did – as a soldier, a farmer, and a teacher. I was in my 30s when I joined the movement to fight the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. Over the years, I got involved in various civic and public policy initiatives, from voter mobilization to immigration reform, spurred by community efforts toward political empowerment. My fervent hope now is for my dad and the thousands of World War II veterans to get the Congressional Gold Medal Award and finally receive recognition for their service and sacrifice.

I retired two years ago from my day job in a labor union that fought for economic justice and retirement security for workers.  At 71, I consider myself fortunate that I and my wife can count on Social Security and Medicare for our basic needs. Like my father, I intend to live a productive life and be actively involved in those issues that affect our community. Retirement has not stopped me because once an advocate, always an advocate.

My father did not live long enough to see great granddaughter Lilah, who was born six years after he died. But in time, I hope she’ll know more about her great grandfather, how he risked his life in order to secure a better life for future generations.

I will also tell her where the seeds came from that she watered, and the garden my father taught me to nurture over the years.  For so long as it blooms and grows, the garden will not only serve as a link across generations. It will always remind us that like saving seeds, we need to pass on our stories of struggle and triumph to our children, and to our children’s children.