By Nancy Deal
It started with the Willoughbys, whose house is down the street from mine. They had a huge fig tree you could see towering over the back fence and it would be loaded with figs every year. That reminded me of the one at my parents’ house growing up, so I decided a couple of years ago that I needed one. It never occurred to me that I could get a piece of my family’s; I just kept looking. This year they were selling them at the Dixon plant sale and I scored one. I knew where I wanted to put it but spent two days watching the sun and decided that wasn’t going to work. Moving on to Plan B, I borrowed a shovel from nice neighbors and finally got it planted.
Fast forward to Easter Sunday when the family, including my brother, came over for lunch. I showed them that my backyard was a work in progress—I was tired of trying to grow fescue, and I was doing other things that included my new little fig tree.
My brother Floyd said, “Oh, I have a planting for you grown from Mother and Dad’s tree! You want it?”
“You bet I want it!”
He went on to say, “You know the fig tree story, don’t you?”
He proceeded to tell me that, as a child, he would sometimes go to work with Dad at Tri-State Iron Works (Main to Front at Keel), and Dad would take him to get a sandwich at a little store nearby. He thought it was on a southwest corner around maybe Second and Looney. If not there, then some other parameters, but all close because Dad usually walked there.
Floyd said the store was owned by an Italian family (didn’t know their name) and that they lived upstairs in the same building. They had a fig tree that was not supposed to be brought into the USA, so they put it in the false bottom of a trunk when the family left Italy for America. The man who owned the store had given Dad a cutting from his fig tree on the store’s grounds and it got planted at my childhood home.
That could have been enough, but nah. Now I wanted to find the store/house.
I poked around a little, talked to Joe to see if he might know off the top of his head, and he started poking. I got off on a tangent searching Tri-State info. I took a road tour via Google, looked at aerial and street maps, searched phone books in the archives, death certificates, etc, etc.
If I found/saw a spot, I sent a photo to Floyd. He kept saying “No.” Plus now he’s not even sure it was two stories. And he’s dead set it’s on a southwest corner.
I went back to the phone books from the 1930’s, searched “grocery stores” in that area, and found there were quite a few. I only looked for Italian names now. Yep, quite a few of those too. I narrowed the search only to a southwest corner in that area. And that got me to two candidates.
Searching the phone books by families’ last names to see who lived there I found that both looked possible—one on Second and one on Fifth. Floyd said Fifth is too far. One spot left: Second and Saffarans, home of Frank and Mary Ragghianti, plus Gabriel, Jan, and Margaret. However, a Google map revealed that what would have been on that property was now gone, replaced by newer homes. What a bust! But that got me to wondering if anyone knew any Ragghiantis I could contact.
It was then that I remembered I have an old phone book. I looked and there was one Frank. I had nothing to lose, I thought. Worst that could happen is it’s the wrong family or they think I’m insane and don’t want to talk to me.
So I called and a female answered. I told her I was looking for a family named Ragghianti who owned a grocery and lived at Second and Saffarans (I had the exact address).
Margaret Ann replied, “That’s us!” I about fell out of my chair.
I asked if there was a fig tree there. She wasn’t sure but she remembered Big Momma made fig preserves. I immediately thought that Big Momma sounded like the kind of person who would not let anything keep her from taking her fig tree with her wherever she wanted. But I wanted confirmation. So Margaret Ann said she would have her husband, Frank, call me.
In the meantime I learned that the Donati family is connected to theirs (I know some of them!) and that they are also friends with the Vergos family, and danged if I don’t know some of them too! I’m feeling like a family reunion.
From there I got my brother in the loop, hoping for the best. And then Frank called.
You bet they had a fig tree at that store and it came from Lucca, Italy! Now I knew I had nailed it. Big Daddy was his grandfather and his grandmother, of course, was Big Momma. And she ruled the roost. Frank’s dad and sibs were born in the house and lots of family lived there. The entire bottom floor was a grocery and they sold sandwiches, among other things. He remembered waiting for coal deliveries in the freezing cold, stocking shelves, selling produce on bike and wagon, etc., as all the family helped.
And there was lots more wheeling and dealing. The business supported three families. We talked and it was just fun to hear it all.
I told him that we had something his family might want: cuttings from their own family’s fig tree that his dad or grandfather had given my Dad. He had never heard of the “smuggling” story and didn’t think anyone in his family would have either. He was so appreciative and thought if he could get five cuttings, his family members could each have one.
“We can do that,” I told him.
Then he mentioned that he and Margaret Ann had a fig tree at their house but not from their own tree. It was given to them ages ago by Charlie Vergos, Mr. Rendezvous! I laughed because I’d been to Greek Easter at his house ages ago and we all probably met when I was about 10 years old! What are the chances of that?
When I talked to my brother to give him the scoop, he said he would work on getting the five plants potted when the season is right for it. Then I told him about Mr. Vergos’s gift to them of the fig at their house in Collierville.
There was a really long pause and Floyd finally said, “There is a pretty good chance Mr. Charlie’s cutting was from our fig tree.”
Seems Dad gave them to everyone, which might have included getting some for Mr. Charlie’s brother (who lived across the street from us growing up) to share with family. So it may be, he was suggesting, that the Ragghiantis have had a cutting from their own fig from Lucca for years and not known it.
But if theirs is small and dark it isn’t the right kind, so the story can’t be true.
I talked to Frank later, and he told me the fig tree at his house puts out plump figs the size of a peach or pear—just like the one at the store did.
I think we hit the mother lode on this one.
Nancy Deal is a native Memphian and lives in Colonial Acres, Memphis, Tenn.