Sunday, August 26, 2007

gardens and benches

Vegetable gardens are deeply meaningful to me. I am amazed at how my thoughts run as I recall gardens of my grandfather, father, and me. A peace and comfort settles within as if I have abstractly found some place safe from intruders.

We lived in Scranton when I was young. My dad grew up in the country, and we eventually moved there. Every Sunday we would visit his parents. My grandfather owned about 17 acres divided into three fields. His home was in the first field, a moderately sized yard off the road. The backyard ran deep. On the upper left was the chicken coop and, behind it, the barn; on the right, rest his garden. It still seems to me impossibly large for personal use, although he did sell sweet corn.

During each summer, I would spend several days there on more than one occasion. On Sundays, beginning in mid-July, people would come to buy corn. Whatever grandkids were present were sent off to pick 13 ears for each dozen requested. He charged one dollar. Years later, as I lived in the general area again, having made the mistake of leaving my adopted home that was chosen almost solely to be as far away from everyone with shared DNA as possible, people would tell me how they would go to my grandfather’s home with their parents to buy Harry Middleton’s corn. They marveled all those decades later that it was still the best corn they ever ate. They told me stories about their Saturday and Sunday dinners. I told them that on some of those weekends, they ate corn that I had picked.

Saturdays and Sundays from about 2:00 P.M. until 5:00 P.M. were always busy. The latest arrivers always spoke with a New York or New Jersey accent. During those busy times, I would sit on a bench and wait for folks to come up the drive. The bench was always there ever since I could remember. It was painted green, well-worn to show grey underneath. It was obviously hand-made, with two planks on top, a skirt, and one plank with a “V” in the bottom to serve as the leg. On the right side of the bench, if you were coming up the drive, it was attached to a maple tree. That tree and bench was the “free zone” or “home base” when the some of us 15 grandkids played games on Sunday afternoons. I recall many times when it was time to leave and return to coal town, I would sneak outside and climb the tree to hide. My dad would feign looking for me, talk to his dad, then shine the flashlight on me. I never sat on the bench with another person even once. I got up plenty of times when others presumed to sit. I can still feel the loss of turning into the drive years later and seeing both the tree and bench gone. I cut myself oftentimes thinking of the ignoble death that wonderful bench endured: discarded as if it was no more than old wood.

My grandmother and her daughters would work for what seemed weeks to can the harvest. They made pies from the apples in the orchard, which was in the lower right corner of the second field. Throughout the winter, when all the kids and grandkids came for dinner each Sunday, the table always had stewed tomatoes, creamed corn, and potatoes – all from the garden. We usually ate a chicken or two that a few hours previous to that dinner wondered why it was being carried out of the coop by its neck and hung by its feet on the clothesline. I’m pretty sure its wondering ended soon thereafter.

During the summers I would fish for hours at the lake. I knew the friendly people that would let me use their row boat. The lake was shaped like a dog bone caricature, with the “lower lake,” where I went, joined to the “big lake” by a long narrow canal. The canal was probably manmade. I was always reluctant to go from one lake to the other because the occasional motor boat would make the same journey. Being 12 was not an age absent of fear or present with false immortality for me. Being tossed by the wake in my wooden row boat was a risk easily managed – just don’t go there – so I usually avoided the risk altogether.

I remember catching a lot of fish, but rarely bringing any to the house. I would hold the bass, perch, sunny, or bluegill that gobbled up the worm I had dug up before I walked to the lake, and always look into its eyes. I tried to understand what it was thinking as it was instinctively sucking the air for oxygen that never came. I always returned it to the waters. I thought of families and of young fish wondering where mama or daddy got the gall or the strength to swim away from them so quickly and why they seemed angry at the time they left. I returned them in the direction where I caught them, assuming they would find their family again. I had one exception, which to my shock was more common than I could rationalize. If I caught the same fish twice, I presumed it was retarded, so I would throw it as far as I could in the opposite direction from where I caught it. I figured that fish families would benefit from not having to care for a retard in their midst. I eventually developed a system of putting the retards on the stringer and taking them close to the overflow dam. My logic was that they would either leave the lake altogether or be too stupid to leave that general area. I was comfortable with the process because I chose a place with an overhanging willow. Willows always meant sustenance to me. For fish, the shade and abundant food falling from its leaves meant that my retards would live a content life, but would no longer be a burden on their families.

I was 14 when we moved to the country. My dad bought 30 acres about five miles from his parents’ home. It was the last section of a field that is about 100 acres. No other homes were in that field. As the first two years wore on, my dad remarked that he had a false memory from long ago: he said that he remembered from his younger years that this opening was planted with field corn every season, but it was clear to him now that the crop was actually rocks. Every day, I picked rocks, filling my bucket and carrying them to the spring run-off area. I haven’t seen that spot for several years, but it never felt good to look at it anyway. I don’t miss it.

My dad had a deep layer of happiness to him that enveloped a complicated core. I think he was largely tormented by his lot in life. He worked hard and was incredibly successful financially for the last 18 years of his life, but he was in a marriage that systematically destroyed him like a cancer. In some measure, I think he accepted his lot because he came from Eastern European blood on one side and coal miner blood on the other: you aren’t supposed to enjoy life, just endure it. I am in the process of a divorce, in part, to avoid a similar fate. I will not do to myself nor to my estranged spouse what I saw occur to my father and his wife. I plan on living much longer than age 71, and will not smoke and drink myself into the grave; I do not want my estranged spouse to become bitter and hardened beyond a comeback.

After several seasons, my dad found the best place for his garden. The early attempts had respectable crops, but lacked the right feel. My dad was incredibly cynical about anything liberal – from politics to liberal-arts studies. But his shifting garden space spoke to me of feng shui. If I ever said that to him, which I did not, he would have scoffed. If he ever listened to a description of it, and was honest about his feelings as to why he moved the garden, I think he would have agreed with me. It would have been, however, an unspoken agreement. Outwardly, he would have told me about water runoff during storms, depth of top soil, and how he didn’t like not being able to see the garden from his window.

The end result was that I picked more rock to clear more garden space here, there, and seemingly everywhere until he settled on the spot in the lower backyard.

Dad would start looking at seed catalogues during Christmas Week. His orders were timed to arrive in March. Some time shortly thereafter, the germination plats would come out. We lived with seedlings for several weeks. “A garden needs to be fully in the ground by Memorial Day. Only lazy people do not take the time to understand that, and then they wonder why the yield is always supplemented at the farmers’ market. If you’re going to do something,” he would say, “do it right or not at all.”

His biggest challenge each late spring was crows. They would dig up the corn seed and eat the young plants. It was a battle each year, but one I think he relished and even looked forward to fighting. He found that coating the seed in tar won the first phase. A scarecrow with pie tins on strings dangling from the arms won the second phase, but just for a while. Crows are smart. They began to ignore the noise. A plastic owl on a perch was the next battle tactic. He admitted that nothing would stop it completely. One of the truly happy times for him would come when he would stay quiet behind a nearby tree until the crows gathered in numbers too bothersome to count. Around the corner of the tree, so slight in its advance that the crows would not notice, would come the long barrels of a double-barrel shotgun. Blam! Blam! Both rounds at once shot a few feet over their heads. Sheer panic would ensue. “That’ll keep them away for a week or so,” he would say with this incredible look of victory dominating his face.

One memory that makes me wince oftentimes is the last garden of his life. The crows toasted his first planting. I did the second planting as he sat in a lawn chair and told me how, even though I was 42 and fully versed. That planting did not come up. He didn’t bother with a third try. It was the first time I recall that he gave up. He said to me several times that summer, “You planted it too deep.” I said, “I’m sorry.” I knew he was wrong but I never defended myself. I used an old corn-seed planter that I recall buying for him twenty years earlier. I loved that it was still his mainstay. It is not possible to plant seed too deep using a planter. He knew that. I’m not sure why he put the burden on me rather than the crows, but I took it like a son is supposed to.

From June until early September, there was rarely any need to ask where he was. If he was home from work, he was sitting in the garden. Always rock to pick; always weeds to clear; always plants to honor. It was a replacement love for where it lacked elsewhere in his life. His words on picking the first generation of tomato blossoms, pollinating corn by hand, and growing a cucumber inside a bottle each year as a gift still resonate.

I have had gardens over the years, but only twice have I allowed myself to love them as they deserve. I have decided that until I can allow myself to feel as I should, that I will not dishonor a garden by merely putting seeds or seedlings into the ground.

That growing season lays out there somewhere, around a bend I cannot yet see.

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