The Garden Connection

“Did you finish your piano lesson?” called Mom, as I dashed through the kitchen.

“Yeah, even the scales.”

My reply was cut short by the whack of the screen door behind me; I headed through the back yard to join Daddy in the garden.

The sun-warmed dirt felt bumpy under my bare feet as I reached my small hand into my father’s dry, calloused palm. Raspy edges of corn stalks made thin white scratches on my arms as we walked through the rustling green forest that reached far above my head. It was my favorite part of the day, when Daddy came home and I could join him in the garden. I loved the smell of the earth and of growing things. The prickly odor of tomato plants and the sharp scent of corn concentrated by the hot afternoon sun were a vital part of my special connection with one of the most important people in my world.

With a growing family to feed, a large garden was a necessity in the lean post-war years. My father was a local brick truck driver, and the garden provided not only nourishment for our family, but also a pleasant diversion after his day of driving and hard physical labor unloading bricks from the bed of his truck. I was his shadow, the youngest child, always welcome to tag along. Daddy had a serious hearing loss, so there wasn’t much conversation between us. But there was no need for unnecessary talk; the strands of love for the garden and for each other bound us securely.

Mother was an inside person, a piano teacher by vocation, burdened with the responsibilities of caring for eight children. She gave us a love of music and books, but Daddy loved the sun and the earth and the outdoors.

In early spring, after he struggled behind the noisy rotary tiller, I helped him rake the soil. We worked together breaking up the dark clods to make a soft, receptive bed for the seeds and seedlings we would plant.  I loved to go with Daddy to the local feed store for the new season’s supply, to add to last year’s left-overs, stored in their lumpy envelopes on a shelf in the garage. He was patient while I helped choose among the cheerful paper packets with their optimistic claims of color, fragrance, or mouth-watering flavor.

We lived in a small added-on-to house set among fir trees on an acre and a half. Between the house and a ramshackle barn and chicken coop was Daddy’s huge garden. One half was reserved for Golden Cross Bantam corn, under-planted with squash and pumpkins. Across the path leading from the house to the barn were rows of cabbage, lettuce, beans, radishes, beets, carrots, tomatoes, and Swiss chard, bordered by fruit trees. Rows of strawberries and raspberries adjoined the chicken yard. Next to the neighbor’s garage, grapevines wound around heavy wires strung between sturdy cedar posts.

Summertime meant reading in the porch swing, climbing trees, and playing croquet and hide-and-seek with cousins and neighbors. It also meant many hours of hoeing and weeding, picking fruit, making jam, jelly, sauerkraut and pickles, canning tomatoes, peaches and plums, and husking corn.

During the growing season, Daddy would walk the mile and a half home from the brick yard, give Mom a kiss, get a drink of water, and head out the back door to work in the garden before dinner. I would drop my after-school reading or hurry through my piano lesson so that I could join him.

We would stroll through the garden together, to check the firmness of a head of cabbage, pull a weed here and there, squish a slug, or test the drying silk of an ear of corn. We delighted in presenting Mom with fresh lettuce for dinner, or the first luscious raspberries.

In my adult years, gardening continued to be a connection between us. I could never make it through March without succumbing to the urge to plant something, even if it was only a few pansies in a pot. Just the smell of the plants or the bags of fertilizer in a garden center would remind me of my childhood garden.

When we visited Mom and Dad, he would proudly show me his newest rose bush or the swelling fruit on his fig tree; I might ask his advice about the spots on my tomatoes. They had moved, and Dad was cultivating a much smaller garden, planted in the porous soil of their ranch along the Sandy River. He still grew Golden Cross Bantam corn and Beefsteak tomatoes, but he was also planting new things. Huge dahlias now graced Mom’s table–they thrived in the porous soil that Dad amended with the abundant manure from their horses.

In the years that my husband and I lived overseas, I always included descriptions of the native flora for Dad in my letters. I wrote of the joys and challenges of gardening in equatorial Uganda or in sub-tropical Sydney, and I knew he would get out the map or encyclopedia to visualize my new setting and the unfamiliar plants I mentioned.

In nearly every garden in the many places we’ve lived, I’ve planted something to remind me of Dad—a start of his lilac bushes, a Peace rose, a flowering quince, or tiny fragrant violets. Each time I pruned the rose or cut a bouquet of lilacs, I would think of him and his love for the garden.

Daddy died a few days before his 101st birthday. It had been a typically stormy spring, and I had brought a bouquet of daffodils to brighten his room on the dismal days. We sat together holding hands and looked out a big picture window, sharing pleasure in the blooming plum trees, and commenting on how wonderful the blossoms smelled after the rain. The garden connection was strong to the very last day, when the rain drizzling on the plum trees echoed the tears on my cheeks as I left his bedside for the last time.

*********

Several years after Dad’s death, I invited my daughters to join me on an impromptu excursion to Mom and Dad’s property.

“Let’s go to the ranch tomorrow! The new owners take possession at the end of the week—this is our last chance.”

We quickly made arrangements for a farewell visit, and piled into the minivan with toddlers and coffee.  At the ranch, we dodged mud puddles and waited out March showers under the overhang of the old barn. I reminisced about my teen years living there, and they laughed at shared memories of summer adventures at Grandpa and Grandma’s.

Violets made an impressionist carpet beneath the blooming quince in Dad’s front flower beds, and the lilac buds were beginning to show color. We made good use of the spade and empty plastic pots I had tossed in the van at the last minute, filling them with starts of shrubs and clumps of violets. I puzzled over some spiky green mounds, familiar, but past bloom and unrecognizable. At the last minute, I added them to the collection, and planted everything in my yard when I got home.

One morning the following February I stood with a cup of tea, looking out the window at my drab and colorless garden.  Suddenly something caught my eye.

“There are snowdrops blooming!” I exclaimed to my husband. “I don’t remember planting any last fall.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Larry. “That’s your territory.”

I stared at the nodding white bells, and suddenly remembered the unidentified green clumps I’d dug from Dad’s garden the previous spring. They had lined his flower beds, and now brought the bright promise of spring to my late-winter garden.

Dad and I, and the garden, were still connected.

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