There is a large patch of land on the corner of 65th street and Lemon Hill Avenue that once was purchased with the intention of building a single family swelling on it. It is home to a community garden, still watered by one hose that is attached to a neighboring house. It’s filled with an assortment of herbs, cabbages, Chayote, and bamboo and serves as a place of healing that has brought a whole community together.
It is very hard to see all of this as you pass it on the street, so it deserves explanation.
It all started with one man, Pho, who eyed it every day on his way to the bus stop. He saw the lot’s potential, rather than the lot itself, thinking of home and the farm he once had there.
Pho had fled Viet Nam in 1979 with his wife and newborn son, Ba. They escaped on a boat bound for Malaysia, where the driver promised paradise in two days for the equivalent of a years’ salary. Pho paid it, but two days into the journey he realized he had been deceived by the boat driver. He didn’t seem to know the proper route and had never been on the open sea. By day five the refugees onboard were without water and many became sick, including his own son, Ba, who died on-board. The sea accepted his little body after the boat's alpha male demanded his removal.
“Let him go to heaven, Pho!” the boat’s loud and domineering Le screamed. “His ghost will turn this boat over and drown us all if you keep holding on to him!”
With tears and a broken spirit, Pho’s own wife Lo let the lifeless body be swallowed up by the waves, knowing the violence that would follow her and her husband if she didn’t. The women on-board hugged her and wept aloud, crying out to their family spirits to help them find passage to somewhere. Cold and without hope, Pho wished that the sea would take him, too.
Instead, a ship carrying large metal boxes caught sight of them and blew a horn so loud it sounded like a thousand crows in one house. That afternoon, a plastic boat with a motor met them, throwing them a tow rope and a gigantic thermos of water. They all drank for the first time in a day and a half, although Le drank most of the water and his wife only slightly less.
Within days they were on a US Navy ship that fed them rice and water. Things looked hopeful for Pho, and he thanked God for accepting his son into heaven and giving them this blessing. His wife was still inconsolable and blamed him for their departure from her beloved Vietnam and little Ba’s death.
Now Pho worked in State Government in Sacramento. He had trained for two years to be a translator and he was happily installed in the Department of Motor Vehicles. People around him were impressed at how quick he was to learn things and how accurate his work was. He worked tirelessly without complaining and earned many chances to promote, which he did.
In Pho’s heart, this new country with so many opportunities was precisely why he and his family made the journey here. Within four years he had saved enough money to buy a home with two bathrooms and a big kitchen. Lo approved and asked if her mother could be sent for. Within two weeks, she was living with them.
Pho and Lo loved their American house, but the backyard was all cement with a swimming pool. Pho convinced his wife and Mother-in-law that it would be good for drawing friends and for the neighborhood.
He was right.
Lo and Pho were like magnets in their community and made friends with many neighbors, most of them Vietnamese. Even so, Pho could see that Lo had never fully recovered from the tumultuous journey. She was a shell of a woman, even when they entertained crowds in their home. Even when she made the shredded pork and cabbage that she served with special pride. Pho could see that she was still only surviving this new land; her son had carried the secret of her light to the depths of the ocean with him.
“I have seen a place today,” Pho told her shortly after moving into their new home. “That looks like it may be a good place for a garden.”
“Hmmm.” Lo was busy putting their new baby, Roseanne, to sleep. She was no more than eight months old and Lo was already pregnant with another.
“Its soil is beautiful. I believe the loam is very good for leafy vegetables and herbs.”
“Perhaps you and your mother can visit it.”
“And if we ask the neighbors we may even find out who owns it.”
Lo did not answer, but Pho could see a sparkle escape her eyes.
The following Saturday, Pho announced to his mother-in-law and his wife that he was going to visit the patch of land on the corner to see if he could find out anything. Lo surprised him by saying she was coming with him.
They walked in silence, as was their custom, and finally came to the piece of land – a dirty street lot with plastic grocery bags and bottles embedded on its surface.
“I will go to this house,” Pho pointed at a large blue house next door. Lo nodded, but didn’t move.
Pho knocked and a small girl answered. “Good morning, is your mother home?”
The girl smiled. “I’m the mother.” Pho smiled, repentant.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t worry,” the girl said. Her hair was the color of the light people and it was near her face in a fancy braid. “Everyone does that.”
“My name is Pho Phuoc, and I live there,” Pho pointed to his house, not visible and over half a mile away. “There on Francine Drive. I would like to know if you own this lot next door.”
The girl raised her eyebrows and puckered her lips. “No, I don’t. My husband and I just rent this house. I’m wondering if the man we rent from owns that lot.”
“I am wondering if we would be able to clean up this lot and make a community garden…”
“Oh, what a charming idea!” The girl interrupted Pho, but it made him smile. It was good that she didn’t object and perhaps she could convince the lot owners that a community garden would be a good idea.
“My wife and I are farmers,” Pho continued, even though he had not used that description of himself in years. He had forgotten how to see himself as a farmer.
“I see,” the girl turned her head to cries from another room. Pho handed her a business card that he had brought along with him. He had even written his home number on the back.
“Please, will you ask this man if he knows who owns this property to call me?”
“I sure will! I’m Laura, by the way.” The young girl smiled and held her hand out to Pho, who looked at it, then shook it.
“I am Pho.”
It took two weeks for the phone to ring about the lot, and it was Lo who answered and didn’t know what was wrong. When her husband came home she explained to him that she received a phone call from a man who kept repeating things in English to her and she couldn’t understand. As Pho pushed the magic *69, and the number that called appeared. Pho wrote it down and redialed. Lo watched him closely throughout the exchange.
“Hello!” An unhappy man answered.
“Hello, this is the person you called today,” Pho said, in respectful tones. “My wife doesn’t speak English.”
“Is this Pho Foo-yok?” The man seemed to be shouting.
“Yes, this is Pho Phuoc.”
“Yeah, don’t you dare touch my property!”
“Are you the owner of the property on 65th and Lemon Hill?”
“I sure am and you are not gonna lay any hand on my property, you got it?”
Pho was too stunned to say much. “Yes.”
There was a click on the other end of the line and Pho realized that the angry man had hung up. As he replaced the reciver in its charger, Lo asked him what was said, worried that it was her fault that the owner was angry. As Pho explained, Lo shook her head.
“If only I spoke English,” she said, quietly.
“No,” he said. “The man is angry for no reason.”
There was silence between Pho and his wife for two days. Every time he walked to the bust stop Pho saw the dormant land there, waiting to be a garden. It could save Lo, he thought. If only...
A year later Pho could look at the lot no more and decided to call the angry owner back.
“If you allow us to farm this piece of land, we will make it better and cleaner and you can take it back anytime.”
The angry man seemed to be thinking about it, then he answered: “I don’t want a bunch of people on that property. It’s my retirement.”
“Yes, I see.”
“Who do you say is going to farm that land?” The angry man asked.
“My wife and her mother.”
“What about you?”
“I work during the day.”
“What do you do?”
“I work for the DMV.”
There was silence again.
“Is there a way I can meet with you?” The angry man asked.
“You can come over to my house and meet us,” Pho said.
“Alright, give me the address.”
Pho stuttered to remember his address and gave it to the man, who hung up after telling him he’d be right over. There was frantic preparation of tea and cookies. Pho's mother-in-law ran around cleaning surface areas and quieting the babies. Lo stood stunned and waved her hands excitedly at Pho, asking if she should change her clothes.
The man showed up in a large van with a wheelchair lift that removed him from it. Pho and Lo observed his carefully as he wheeled himself up the driveway, dressed in a suit with one eye covered by a patch.
“Come in!” Pho said, bowing slightly. The angry man shook his head and tried to smile.
“Chair won’t make it through that door. We can talk here.” Pho guessed that the man had been wounded in an accident. It was unfortunate that someone so young would be in a chair that walked for him. He saw much of this back home after the war.
The angry man waited while Lo brought out a kitchen chair for her husband to sit in. She stood next to him as he and the angry man talked for an hour about the land. It belonged to the Man’s father and was left to him when the father went to heaven. The man now worried about the area and he knew that the field was no more than “a place to get drunk or smoke dope” – and he worried about it becoming a nuisance.
“Why don’t you sell it?” Pho asked. He secretly wished he could afford to buy it.
“It won’t sell in this neighborhood now.”
“Will you lease it to us?” Pho said this impulsively. With a home of his own and two small daughters, there was no extra money to pay a lease. Even so, he had to resuscitate his wife somehow; he could see that the prospect of farming had brought her back to life.
“Nah,” the angry man’s face seemed to lighten. “If you clean up that place and keep the riff-raff off, I guess I’ll let you grow stuff there. But I’ll tell you, the minute I see anything illegal or suspect or even something I don’t like…”
“No, no, no…”
“…I’ll shut that thing down.”
When Pho later translated the whole conversation for his wife, he saw the girl he knew from the Gia Định Province, tanned and parched and smiling with her hat hanging from her thin neck. It took her only a few minutes to gather the few gardening tools they had together. The following morning she was up before dawn; she and her mother strapping the girls to their backs. They happily began clearing away the surface rubble from their new farm.
Within days they were ready to plow and it don’t take long for them to have an audience. The white girl from next door brought a long hose to them and offered her own water to make to the process easier. Irrigation took only two days and then came the planting.
Tending the garden breathed fresh life into Lo, who was energized from the process and came home to do housework and cooking even better than she had done before. She and her mother had a routine and grew accustomed to unannounced visits from the man in the wheelchair. Once, when visiting, she saw him smile.
In the first harvest, the women realized that they had planted too many bitter melons for one family to use, so they shared them with grateful neighbors who decided to celebrate the garden with a party. They all made Canh Cua soup, where each neighbor contributed one ingredient.
Even the angry man attended. “You know I know Viet Nam, I bet you didn’t know that, did you?” he said to the Pho at the party.
“You know my country?” Pho was pleasantly surprised at this fact.
“Yeah, I did a tour there!”
“You did a tour?” Pho realized that the angry man in the wheelchair had fought against the communists that expelled him and Lo from their home. This must be how he got the wheelchair… “Ahh, I see.” Pho saddened and the angry man tried to cheer him up.
“Yah, it was a heck of a place.”
Pho nodded again. It was glorious in his growing up days; he had even heard the land had recaptured some of this glory recently, but he couldn’t be sure without seeing for himself.
“You know, I don’t even know your name. What is your name?” Pho asked him after awhile.
“Hey everybody!” Pho called out, then again in Vietnamese, “Tôi có thể có sự chú ý của bạn!”
After the party quieted, amidst the sipping of the bitter melon soup, Pho raised his glass and smiled. “I want to lift my glass to Neil, a very generous man!”
The party lifted their glasses to toast him and Neil was flabbergasted to the point of embarrassment. The party continued and Pho and Neil exchanged glances.
“Last time I tell you anything,” Neil said, trying to be angry.
Pho knew better now: Neil needed the healing power of the garden as much as he and Lo did.