Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In Our Garden

On the drive into the city I passed a sign that said "community garden" there on a spot that once held a small and very ancient drive in theater. The area itself tends towards the lower income, even a fast food restaurant in the area, going out of business. Houses are small, and lots are smaller, few would have space for a garden in their own yard. The houses crowd along the curve of a busy street, paint faded into dark shadows of brown and grey, that cut in and out of shadows, porches sagging just feet from a street that if widened further will be at their front door.

From a distance they look less like homes and more like a ghostly herd of creatures reaching their heads down to drink from a ghostly stream. A garden, a bit of life in this place, a bit of color, neighbors coming together to work and grow. This will be a good thing, I think as I pass yet another failed business, another shuttered home, driving down a road as silent and as black as Styx.
My parents property was not large, it edged up against mountains but the actual property their house was on, was probably a quarter of an acre. As kids we'd hang out at my Uncle's ranch, acres and acres from which to roam. But "home" was more post 1950's subdivision than sprawling rural playground.

Still, Dad always had a garden, even if it was only about 12 x 12 feet in size. Every year he'd till till the soil, and we'd help him plant the seeds. I was expected to help with the watering and the weeding, but I got a quarter for every bucket of weeds I'd pull, as this duty was above and beyond the other many chores I had, for which there was no allowance given, only a roof, food and love.. I didn't particularly enjoy the task, but Dad wanted us to learn, early on, that nothing is given to you and money is earned.
It was pretty much the same veggies each year.  First would be planted the swiss chard, which my Dad loved, cooked and sprinkled with flavored vinegars my Mom would make.  Then there would be carrots, cabbage, lots of tomatoes, and green beans.  Each year, he'd also plant two rows of corn.  The corn never did well, but he never gave up on it.

The neighbors had gardens as well, and when someone was on vacation we'd water and tend to their garden, as they did ours. Seeing the sign for the community garden, I thought of that. I thought of it again, as the front flowerbeds at the Range were cleared of weeds. For a hundred years flowers have bloomed here, plants shooting up the lattice as the children in the home themselves, sprouted, grew strong, and then left.

Along the side of the house, I remove a piece of trash that had blown into the lattice work and it takes me back. What is it about certain things, the simplest of things, a flower, a smell, the feel of a piece of wood or tool in your hand that evokes a place, a voice, that makes you feel like a small child walking on a path of life that suddenly got so big.  And like a child, you deeply sense how it makes you feel, but the words you know to explain it are so very limited, so you just sit, and look, and breathe it in.

As I secured the lattice I had to stop and sort my words, as memories came unbidden, color, movement, shape. My mom bending over the garden, helping my Dad week, a young woman over whom death had already casts its shadow as surely as the apple tree sharing her that day. In this garden here today, I can smell the perfume of her beloved roses and the remembrance of the fluid movements of her hands in the soil as real to me as a tide. She worked in the same way as she watched over us. Steady, gentle, certain.
There were times I'm sure Mom and Dad didn't want to work out there, Dad with a full time job, a home to maintain and care for, as well as the paper recycling the Lions Club did to put money into the community and his work as a deacon in our church. Mom had rambunctious red-headed children, dogs, chores and health that was precarious for so many years, but never so much she failed to volunteer at the hospital. But they did the work as it was more than a hobby, it was food for the table.

Mom enjoyed convenience as much as anyone, but they made a conscious decision for her to stay home to be a full time Mom. She'd been a Deputy Sheriff for 18 years, a career she was proud of, but she was more proud to simply say her job was "Mom" when they adopted us late in life.  But that meant the budget didn't allow for expensive prepared foods from the grocers but for the occasional treat and baking supplies. We ate well, we just ate within our means. We grew, we fished, we bought a steer and raised it with a neighbor who had more land, butchering it to feed two hungry families each year. Mom and my grandmother who lived with us, baked bread and canned, not just food from the garden but the fruit off of the trees, the yard having a large and hardy, apple tree.

It wasn't always a success. We had the occasional two inch mutant carrots, small tomatoes, or no corn at all. Dad had a fence tall enough to keep deer out. Small critters were still an issue and the fact that he caught my Mom putting scraps out for the possum he'd been trying to hunt down and kill  to keep it from eating his produce didn't help. But he didn't get angry at her. He never did, accepting her quirks as she did his, with a bemused smile and tenderness that always hovered about like the beating of small wings.

When my parents were tired, when they were worn with work and worry, they simply held on, to their dream, to each other even if all that we witnessed of the effort was Dad picking up her trowel so she could rest, with a touch of hand on her cheek that left a smudge of dark earthy soil/ Such moments, such movements, were a glimpse of a profound intimacy we weren't yet old enough to grasp, but which stayed with me like a small glimpse of some sustaining truth.

A year later I again drove past that community garden to find it barren, overgrown and parched. Why did it fail? Were there water source issues, ownership issues, or was it just something new and unknown, of which we all may fear, but for the ignorant can seem perpetually vast? Or was it simply that people didn't realize that there isn't just effort to it, it's a sustained effort. You just don't drop a seed into the soil, walk away and come back weeks later to take your bounty; you don't watch others do all the work and then show up with your hands out. It's a lot of work to be a community, something lost on some folks, it seems.
Pretty soon this will be plowed under, paved over, what is left only an illusion; that which is not wishful thinking, but a remote unattainable truth some people will only see dimly, or not at all.

I didn't particularly like gardening; I still don't. But it was, and is, a good lesson in life. Sometimes you do the work, putting months, even years into something and it doesn't work out. The best of intentions can't always sway mother nature or the yearning of the human heart. here comes a time, when you are left to reach into the tangled remains, through the tumbled underbrush, the barren patches, where all seems to be dead, but something is left for you, if only a goodbye. Perhaps there is one last piece of fruit on that vine. Perhaps you can pluck one last bit of nourishment before it is gone, the bittersweet against your tongue, one final taste of the reason you started it in the first place.
I imagine for at least one of the residents in that neighborhood, the one that put the work in, that walked those blocks in the hot temperatures, who braved the sun, who believed, it was hard to walk away, to realize they alone could not save it. For all of it, the sweat and tears, the friendship, the love, that either blossoms under harsh sun, or withers away, all of those things that make you its master, also makes you its captive.

Dad can not keep up his garden, even with assistance, he could not bend to pull from the soil, that which he desired. He only bends down now to lay down upon a grave in a military cemetery, the flowers he has slain in honor of his love, watered by his tears, upon a hilltop where the soil holds fast to what's left of honor. I will watch him there from a distance, giving him time alone, watching him as he likely used to watch me.  We'll stay until the shadows deepen and the river darkens, the inevitable task of the night, falling down upon our presence, darkness fading the very outlines of stone, burying the outlines of this place, this day, like the soft and steady fall of ash. It is only then, that he will leave.

Dad's garden is fallow, but on the deck, within a few feet of the door to the family room are two elevated barrels and a trellis on which grow just a few tomatoes.  He can water without bending, and pull them from the vine without effort, to enjoy, if only briefly, that gift, until nothing remains of it but memory, a shadow in the light.
Today in my own flowerbeds, pulling yet another weed among the flowers, I find a small penny, dated a lifetime ago and pluck it from the soil like some forlorn magician.  I wonder where it came from; who dropped it here and when.  I wash it with the hose, revealing a gleam that still exists even if  what it represents won't buy a single thing, in and of itself.

I'm tired, but there is still much to do, as I look around this place that is now my heart's home.  The grass devours the sunshine, the flowers nibbling at the crumbs.  I drink from the hose, let the water trickle down the back of my neck as I look to the east. There beyond a crowded urban sprawl I have little time or attention for, is a large body of water, that's been here before this land was tended, and will be there longer after we are dust.  The haze rises off of it, the sunshine catching its surface, lending to it the form of a mirror in which the city is only an illusion.
I look back to my work, tucking the penny deep into my pocket.That's what my Dad would do. Everything worth having is worth working for, something we realized there in those days of watching and learning from Mom and Dad toil in the garden, those days where we were but the echo to their sound.

I put my hands down into the soil, drawing air deep into my lungs, fueling my thoughts, my hands, my regrets. In the now silent sky hovers a bird, it's wings fluttering down over me, as if it were watching.



  1. Hari OM
    We share a generational experience; much of which you wrote is familiar. Yet so different... YAM xx

  2. What a great post! Mom told us about the giant garden her mom had every year. And she tended it all by herself. Looking back mom cannot believe she did that but she did and it provided well for the family and there was always lots of canning and freezing to do. There was a small farm too. Now another garden is one that is just down the street from us. It used to be a very old man and lady who would work on it and they had beautiful looking plants. But then the lady would tend and the man would sit nearby. Now we see that it is the lady alone. We know she can't eat everything that garden supplies but we think her time there is like being with the man again.

    Your Pals,

    Murphy & Stanley

  3. We loved this post with all its pictures, and your story. Nice memories, good ones to keep.
    stella rose

  4. Wow what a beautiful bunch of memories and thank you for sharing them. This whole post is wonderful.

    Ziggy Out!

  5. Your memory of your father and tomatoes reminds me of my own father.
    He planted zucchini and we all ate the bread.
    Oh here come the tears of happy memories.
    We enjoyed reading your thoughts tonight.

    Linda and Astro

  6. Oh I can see that beautiful garden... and we often remember the garden the granny had once.... and it's no easy to look at our nuclear test site with having the wonderful pictures in our mind ;o)


Welcome to The Book of Barkley and the Blogville dog blogging community. This blog was created for more memories of Barkley as well as updates on Abby the Senior rescue Lab, who we adopted in 2014.

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