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My family were gardeners. Not the tiny little “isn’t that a cute tomato plant” type of gardeners, but the “We’ve got a duplex of ten people to feed and only 2 men bringing in wages” type. The garden was a family affair, even for me, the youngest. On the first warm day at the end of February or beginning of March, my dad or grandpa would roto-till up the garden area – which was huge – 1/2 an acre or so I think. He’d work in all the leaves and dead plant material from the winter. Then, wait another week or two and till it again. It was after this second tilling that the real work started. All the women and children- MeeMaw, Aunt Rose, Aunt Blanche, my mom, Terry, and me – would follow behind the tiller carrying hoes (the garden variety) and hack away at the big clumps. Next, Grandpa would put stacks at the front and back of the garden area, marking the rows. I’ll never know how he managed to make the rows straight since he just eyeballed everything – no measuring. He’d string cotton string between the stakes then we – the Hoe Pack – would make little mountains beneath the strings. By early April MeeMaw would have planted potatoes, onions, and lettuce. By mid-May she’d have in cucumbers, tomatoes, kohlrabi, radishes, zucchini, beans, and sometimes peas. One year, we even had corn. We all helped with this, but she was really the one to decide where everything went and when it would be planted. She was the Garden Whisperer. Throughout the spring I’d watch eagerly for the first green shoots to push through the dark earth. I’d badger her with “can we eat it now” until she finally would let me pinch off baby lettuce leaves and eat them right there in the garden. (Now, don’t think we starved or anything – I just really liked eating those tasty little leaves even if I did get a bit of dirt along with the greenery.)
I loved gardening. Everything from watering the rows to digging up the radishes to snapping the beans. The idea that one little seed buried in nothing but dirt could produce a vine with a whole crop of cucumbers fascinated me. There is something primordially beautiful about eating a meal almost totally made up of food products you yourself have nurtured. One of the few disappointing aspects of my house now is that the ground is too clay ridden, there is too much shade, and there is not enough yard to have a decent garden.
MeeMaw also taught me that sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan, plant, and nurture, the product turns out wrong. Maybe there’s a drought. Maybe a flood. Maybe a bad seed. Maybe pests. When this happens, it’s best just to cut that plant out, toss it into the compost pile, and use it to help nurture the other plants. I I watched her do this year after year and it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I understood the metaphor.
Sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan, learn, and prepare, life turns out wrong. When I first entered college, I thought I wanted to teach business skills – secretarial to be precise. I had taken secretarial courses in high school, worked as a secretary for a few years, was an ace typist, knew a little about shorthand, could keep a calendar, had a nice voice, could enunciate when I spoke, could use a dictaphone (this WAS 1982, so this was top technology at the time!), and wasn’t afraid to use the new word processors like Wang. As it turns out, no matter how hard I wanted to like the business world, I hated it. My grades plummeted, I became depressed, and I generally hated life. That was when I changed majors to English, which, in the long run, has worked out much better for me. I was also able to “compost” many of my secretarial skills to nurture my new career choice. Typing papers and lesson plans was a breeze. Notetaking posed no problems, Keeping a plan book is much like keeping a calendar, and I could project my voice well enough to get the attention of a classroom full of rowdy teenagers.
MeeMaw taught me many, many things. One of the most important, however, was that no effort was ever wasted and no knowledge was ever useless.
So this one Christmas my grandfather, Francis Emmit Brady (he went by Emmit), took me to go get the tree. Normally, my brother would have gone as well, but he was sick, so I got grandpa all to myself. We went down to Produce Row in St. Louis where he knew all of the Italians who had produce stands. Grandpa, like my dad, worked for the Norfolk & Western (now Southern) railroad and would call them whenever a car of produce was about to go unclaimed. The produce stand owners would then come to the rail yard and bid on the car, thus getting a better deal on the produce. They returned the favor to my grandpa by giving him discounts on his own produce, Christmas trees, and Thanksgiving Turkeys (that’s a WHOLE ‘nuther story!!!). Riding with my grandpa was always a treat. First, there were no seat belt laws back in the 70’s. Second, he was color blind and would sometimes forget which light was on top – the red or the green one. I just thought people were odd when they waved quite energetically to us but with only one finger. Anyway, once we arrived, grandpa held my mittened hand and led me around the lot full of trees. He told me I could pick out any tree I liked. After careful inspection, I chose the absolute best tree I could find. Turns out the tree was about 12 feet tall (we had 8 foot ceilings), had a trunk with an S shape and was missing quite rather large branches, but hey, from the point of view of a 4 foot tall five year old, it was spectacular. Grandpa, naturally, agreed with me. He scooped me up to his shoulders (which seemed to be 10 feet high) and we went into the produce store.
The store was magical. It was filled with the smells of pine, apples, oranges, homemade wine, man sweat, wet dog, apple cider, and chocolate. I was in awe. Then I spotted something I’d never seen before – a hairy wooden ball. When I pointed it out the gigantic dark haired man who owned the store laughed and laughed. Grandpa, for the record, never laughed at me. It would be rude to laugh at a princess, which is exactly what he made me feel like. For some reason, though the other man’s laughter made me smile. His laugh was deep and rich and kind. He spoke with an accent which I found enchanting. He then handed me the hairy ball and told me that if I could open it, I’d find a prize inside. I promptly sat on the floor and attempted to open the thing, which I couldn’t do. Before I knew it, it was time to go. The enormous tree was tied to the top of the car and Grandpa and I were headed home singing “Jingle Bells”. Okay, it was like shouting than singing, but whatever. I was having a GREAT time, especially with all the cars honking at us and waving. I held my hairy ball in my hands, breathing in the scent of winter, pipe tobacco, and something sweet. Turns out that while I was occupied with my new ball, the big man was sharing a bit of homemade Italian wine with Grandpa!
We got home to Collinsville safe and sound. My mom was horrified when she saw the tree, my father laughed so much he cried, MeeMaw just smiled and shook her head, and my brother asked why I had a coconut. Grandpa and my dad basically cut the tree in half to get it inside the house. My brother, coughing and sneezing, helped me hold a screwdriver to one of the coconut’s eyes while he used the hammer to poke a hole in the top. Eventually, we got through and poured out the “milk” inside. Then, we gleefully pummeled the coconut until it cracked open. MeeMaw gave us each grapefruit spoons and we gnawed on the raw coconut while the grown ups got the tree set up and the lights on it. Terry and I, full of energy now, put on ornaments while MeeMaw and my mom found ornament hooks, Grandpa snored contentedly, and my dad sat back and watch, a goofy grin on his face.
For some reason, I still love lopsided trees and I always want a coconut for Christmas.