Never Picked a Lemon

MICHAEL DiMAURO

June 19, 1992|By MICHAEL DiMAURO

In these uncertain times, when the country is so desperately in need of leadership, it's good to know that there is still one man we can count on to -- among other things -- pick a really good watermelon: my father Mario.

A first generation Italian-American, my father was born into a family of almost magical gardeners. There was a time when you could always find them tending their gardens and window boxes in the cool of the evening along Erie Street. No patch of earth was let go to waste and for some, like Uncle Domenic, a crack in the sidewalk could yield a bushel of plump red tomatoes or huge purple eggplants.

My father, however, has acquiesced the gardening to my mother who -- despite her ability to produce lavish bounty from otherwise unfertile earth -- cannot, by her own admission, pick a good watermelon. Not as well as my father, anyway, despite his best efforts to teach us. Many times, I have stood and watched as he carefully scrutinized two melons, one in each hand, before setting one aside to select another challenger.

Then, he would thump. Not just mindless thumping, like so many other shoppers trying to maintain the facade of expertise. No, for my father has developed a system of echo location so advanced I know dolphins that are jealous. One or two strategically placed thumps offers him a comprehensive image of an entire pile of melons much the same way modern researchers use shock waves to search for oil deposits miles beneath the earth's crust.

And when he finally selected one he would turn to me and say, ''You see?'' And of course, I didn't see, but would nod in agreement as though I, too, could ready these green-striped crystal balls.

So it wasn't surprising that, whenever there was a family function and each family was relegated to bring a covered-dish, it went without saying that my father should arrive with a watermelon tucked under each arm. And, after the burgers and hot dogs disappeared and everyone was bent over a pink half-moon of juicy melon, you would always find someone who felt it necessary to say, ''Mario, you sure can pick a good watermelon.'' And my father would simply shrug politely and continue slicing the perfectly symmetrical wedges.

But it wasn't until I set out on my own that I began really to appreciate my father's skill. Each year I would anxiously await the arrival of summer so that I could apply the ''Mario technique'' in selecting ripe, juicy melons with irreproachable consistency.

And each year I have failed miserably. So miserably, in fact, that I have developed obscure theories to excuse my inadequacy. Perhaps the melons where I shop just aren't as good as the melons where he shops. Or maybe the gene for watermelon-selection is recessive.

Of course, probably closer to the truth is that my father, like so many other fathers, possesses the patriarchal skills that are lost on my generation. And although I feel that I am destined to a life of selecting inferior melons, it is my fondest hope that one day this gift will be transferred to me.

In the East, Zen philosophers ruminate over something they call ''one-note enlightenment.'' Put simply, it is the ideology that someone can study philosophy all his life without ever really understanding it and then, one day, he will hear one note played on a flute that will make everything fall into place, and all the answers seem clear. I can only hope that somewhere in my destiny there is a melon that, after just one thump, will open my eyes to total understanding, and that everything my father tried to teach me will become clear. That all melons will no longer look the same and I will be able to walk into any market or fruit stand in the world with pride and strike upon melons with confidence, selecting only the best to share with my friends who will say in awe ''Wow. He knows melons.'' And I can smile with satisfaction and think ''No . . . I know Mario.''

Michael DiMauro writes from Havre de Grace, Maryland

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