A look back finds plenty of progress

It has finally happened. My boyhood home has been demolished. The lot where it once stood is empty, ready for whatever is to be built on it next.

I drove past 400 Wellesley Avenue on Thanksgiving to get one last look at the old farmhouse. A large crane stood at the ready next to two empty industrial bulk-refuse containers. I thought about removing the "400" number that we had placed on the house some 30 years ago. Instead, I decided to take the course of action my father would have chosen: write an essay about it.

Although I can't begin to count the number of times I heard the phrase "Progress is a law" during father-to-son lectures, I'm sure Dad initially wouldn't be overwhelmed with excitement over the news about the house.

It would certainly be enough to distract him from another recent development: the demise of his 1988 Saab 900.

This house was where the idea of "Camp Cattani" had been born and nurtured. My parents didn't have the extra money in their budget to send the three of us kids to summer camp, so we did it ourselves and learned that life's adventures are truly fulfilled through creativity and resourcefulness. We made the best of what was available where we were the center of the world.

One tradition that endured after the founding of Camp Cattani (despite the occasional groan of protest from us kids) was the planting of a vegetable garden. The garden at 400 was enormous and had everything from asparagus to zucchini. There was even a grapevine.

In 1975, a Better Homes and Gardens magazine article featured the garden and a number of Cattani family recipes.

Although we no longer live at 400, the cooking and gardening traditions have continued. Mom's berries and tomatoes have made her a virtual celebrity to the multitude of youngsters throughout her current neighborhood. And the French ambassador to the US proclaimed the Cambridge residence of their consul (where Mom is the chef) to be the best French restaurant in Boston, period.

In the minutes it took 400 to fall, I remembered several other things: One was the spiral staircase we installed up to the bedroom I shared with my brother. Another was the open windowpane in the detached two-car garage that was caused by an errant hockey slap shot. I recall the shipments of manure we received for the garden from Mr. Hegarty's farm, just a stone's throw away. (I think the riding lessons we received at the Hegartys' farm were somehow connected to our family having to put up with the odor of manure on a hot August day.)

Today, organically grown food is highly popuIar. Dad was ahead of his time.

Even though the raccoons consumed the vast majority of corn, and the rails the grapevines climbed mostly became apparatus for our gymnastics routines, the most vivid memory is that of my father spending some quiet time alone in the garden near the strawberry beds after hearing of his own father's passing.

Gardens, really, were Dad's tribute and connection to his father. Dad never picked up a paintbrush, but he took great pride in saying he was "a painter's son," coming from humble beginnings and emphasizing the concept of positive improvement as a daily mission. He saw himself as a teacher-coach as much as he did a newspaper editor or a writer, if not more so.

I am much more skilled with a brush and roller than I am with a hoe and pruning shears, and it's funny when I can sense Grandpa's ideas guiding each coat. No sooner had I finished painting the last room at Mom's, than my brother needed his bathroom updated. We're all homeowners now. There's progress.

My personal foray into gardening includes stubborn maintenance of a Key lime tree and pineapple plant in New England. I have traded in the grapevine poles for "real" gymnastics apparatus.

Conversations with my sister, who lives abroad, remind me how Dad remained connected with his own sisters, although they lived miles apart. Education as a profession remains a strong link between us. She holds a master's degree from Harvard, just as Dad did.

It remains to be seen what will happen next on the 400 lot, but I have a pretty good guess. Building materials and styles change, but homes are built on ideas. Dad always spoke of things happening in cycles. Good ideas are always coming back around. My friend Cleudes and his wife, Lily, (like my father's parents, both coming to America from different cultural backgrounds) recently installed a spiral staircase in their home.

So while some completely start over from scratch, others still seize what's in front of them as the challenge.

Either way, we're still making progress.

Gabriel Cattani's father, Richard, was editor of the Monitor from 1988 to 1994.

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