I hated working in the family garden when I was a teenager because, of course, I had teenager things to do, and all of that tilling and hoeing got in the way. Now, decades later, I’m eager to work up the soil in the raised bed Cathy and I rent from our community garden and sow our cool weather crops.
What I remember most from my parents’ garden was how my mother and father worked in it together. I remember how they consulted and assigned tasks and picked and prepared and preserved and ate the vegetables and fruits they grew. I also remember the joy gardening brought them and how invested they were in the process. From time to time, my father would get too close to a plant with his hoe and cut it down. It would be enough to nearly bring him to tears. Those plants meant that much to him, yes, but as I look back on those times now, I see something else at work, something connected to the most significant event in my family’s history, the day my father lost both of his hands in his corn picker because he didn’t take the time to shut down the power take-off when he tried to clear a clog from the shucking box. The spinning rollers caught his right hand, and when he tried to pull it free with his left, the rollers caught it, too. How long must he have blamed himself for the accident? When he cut down a garden plant, did that moment in the cornfield rise up and overwhelm him? I imagine it may have because our family’s story is a story of loss, but more than that it’s a story of loss connected to shame.
Imagine my father, whose prostheses could hold a hoe handle, or the handles of a cultivator, but who had to rely on my mother to plant the small seeds: the lettuce, the radishes, the carrots. I remember how he’d use the point of his cultivator to mark a straight row across our garden plot and how he’d stand by as my mother stooped and dropped the seed in the furrow. There in the early spring it was practically a sacred moment when the seed went into the ground. For my father, I imagine the planting was a moment of faith, perhaps even a moment of redemption. Each perfect radish or beet or bean or tomato was proof that he hadn’t made a mistake.
I’m thinking about this today, not only because I’ll soon be planting, but also because it’s been a good while since I’ve started a new piece of writing. It’s been so long, in fact, that I’m almost afraid to begin because I worry about not being able to bring a new piece to completion. That’s a bad situation for a writer. Fear or uncertainty leads to paralysis. I know eventually I’ll begin again, so now in my fallow period, it’s important to remind myself of the faith writing takes. Consider the lettuce seed, so small, that eventually puts forth glorious leaves. Time, patience, care, faith—that’s all it takes whether writing or gardening. We plant a seed or make a mark on the page or screen, and we trust in the growing season, along with our passion and our skill, to successfully bring something to its end.
“Look at that one,” my father often said when he was telling me which tomato or bean or roasting ear to pick. His voice would be hushed, a tone of reverence and thanksgiving and awe when he added, “It’s ready.” How grateful he was, how pleased, how humbled, how blessed.