Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary / How does your garden grow?
Today is Father’s Day. Historically, for this day I would have struggled with finding an appropriate card, one that neither read “World’s Greatest Dad” nor was too impersonal, perhaps not sent it on time, and maybe telephoned my Dad, maybe not. It might have been that he would have been away on one of his extended trips to the near or far East, leaving my brother and me no real way of contacting him for months at a time.
A still younger me might have bought him a silly gift, maybe even the fallen into the tie cliché. I don’t remember that we made much of either Father’s or Mother’s Day growing up. But all of that was then. Today is Father’s Day, my first without a living father to celebrate or ignore. It hurts.
If my dad were able to visit today, I would take him out—he using a cane to shuffle—to our backyard where my tiny garden, 12’x24’ is growing beautifully in spite of the wash of rains we’ve had. When I was little, we planted a huge garden, a fenced rectangle perhaps a third of an acre. We were ambitious, planting rows and rows of potatoes and corn, zucchini, tomatoes and okra. There were herbs, too, some there and a more permanent bed half-way up the hill along the drive, where the catnip eventually took over and our orange cat used to crawl into the tangle and come out singing like any drunken sailor.
From when I was very young, I helped plan and plant that garden, pushing the seeds into wet spring earth and admonishing my father not to talk about eating the vegetables we grew in front of the plants. We would joke in overly loud voices, “ha-ha, we’ll be delighted to have you over for supper” as we tucked the plants into neat rows. I learned from him how to set potatoes and cage tomatoes, how to string beans and thin seedlings, how to plant a garden and then how to wait for it to grow.
Just about every year in the farm garden, spring’s promise led to summer’s weeds, and harvesting vegetables from the tangle was a challenge. For dinner, my mother used to rely on a dish she called “Everybody Stew.” Sometime midday she’d brown a piece of beef, grass-fed from our own land, or venison or lamb, and put it on low in her giant cast iron casserole. Late in the afternoon, she’d go over to the garden, or send one of us, to pick through the weeds and salvage whatever was ready. Carrots, celery, tomatoes, potatoes, summer squash—they were all there and worth rooting for. These would get sliced into the stewpot. Along about sundown, the stew would be ready, served with bread and sometimes salad, if the lettuce hadn’t yet bolted. A dribble of the gravy would go over the dogs’ kibble, thus the reason she called it everybody stew.
I long for an enormous garden like the one from my childhood, but I doubt I’d do any better keeping the weeds down. One bale of straw from the local gardening store mulches my garden and keeps the weeds mostly at bay. I can move through and weed the entire plot in about twenty minutes—a maintenance plan I mostly manage. As I do so, I remember my father, a great starter of gardens. One year I even helped draw out a garden plan, coloring the mature vegetables in wobbly rows and writing elaborately at the top in childish curly magic marker letters: Vance’s Victory Garden. Today I think he’d like this plot of mine, smile at its sweet manageability as I do.
If the plants produce as they appear they might, this year we’ll taste zucchinis, tomatoes (yellow, red and purple), peppers, broccoli, eggplant, and cucumbers. We might even see a melon or two. If I keep up with the weeds, so much the better. It’s neither the garden of my dreams nor of my memories, but it helps me keep connected to both, and through the planning, the care or lack thereof, and the produce, to my father. My father, for whom this Father’s Day I have no conflicting emotions. It’s simple: I miss him.
In memory of my Dad, Father’s Day 2011, Rxo