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.