To Make a Garden Grow

My grandfather has been farming for most of his life. At 93, he grows a huge garden in the Atlanta suburbs my parents call home. In fact, when we moved him from rural Arkansas to the big city, one of the first things my grandfather did was break ground for a garden. Before unpacking, my grandfather grabbed the tiller that has seeded his ambitions since he was a young man and began staking a new claim. Apparently, you can take the man out of Arkansas, but the homegrown habits will come along for the ride. 

I can’t remember a time when we didn’t drive to Arkansas to spend our summers on the farm. Summer days began early in Arkansas, and for good reason. The heat and humidity that traveled the Mississippi river bottoms to the Ozark foothills could be stifling. It was worth getting up before dawn to try and beat the heat. Most days would begin with my grandfather’s heavy footfall in the back of the house, and the sounds of the refrigerator door opening and closing as my grandmother packed the ice chest for our morning chores. After getting himself ready, my grandfather would knock on my door and make his daily proclamation. “Now is the time for all good women to come to the aid of their country.” Every single morning.

Ever the good woman, I dressed quickly and joined my grandfather in the truck. When we arrived on the farm, I was in charge of all gates and locks. As soon as we got through the front gate, I moved to the truck bed so that I could hop in and out more easily as we made our way across the farm. After opening or closing a gate, I would climb back up and pound on the roof of the cab – three times – to let my grandfather know that I was holding on and ready to go. Every single time.

Morning chores involved checking the cattle and putting out hay and minerals. I was also in charge of looking out for the thistles my grandfather liked to keep in check. If I spied the purple flower from my perch on the back of the truck, we would pull over and cut the stalk at the root so that it wouldn’t go to seed. After counting cows and stalking weeds, we headed to the garden. Tending a large plot on the other side of a small creek in a pasture near the old barn, my grandparents had been raising food on the farm for well over 30 years before I came along. In neat, long rows, they grew potatoes, squash, onions, beans, peas, greens, and tomatoes. And corn. And asparagus. And they grew not just for themselves, but for the entire family. Working the garden with my grandfather – untangling water hoses and picking beans while keeping an eye out for snakes – I grew and grew to love the living things that would make their way to the dinner table that same day. 

Mornings on the farm with my grandfather taught me a lot of things. How to answer a knock at the door. How to get up early to catch the cool part of the day. How to sit quietly and watch the fog lift from the river or the sun rise over a pasture. How to learn by doing. And how to bear the monotony that sows tradition bone deep.

I only lived in Arkansas twice in my life – once, as a foreign exchange student in high school, when I spent a semester abroad from my home in Berlin, Germany, to live with my grandparents in the United States. The second time, my husband and I moved into my great grandfather’s house to help care for my grandmother. There is a lot I could say about those years of tender care and heartbreak, but what bears on this story is how my grandfather slowly transitioned the farm garden to my grandparents’ in-town backyard. Moving and downsizing the garden was one of many adjustments we all made to try to support my grandmother’s new and ever-changing normal. Initially, my grandfather resisted, knowing that each inch he gave up was proof of an inevitable decline he could not grow his way out of. Working out his grief in the backyard, he produced a bounty my grandmother no longer remembered how to put up.

And so, I remembered for both of us – and I washed, and blanched, and pickled, and canned. And I sat with my grandmother as we sorted and snapped beans together. This time, it was my turn to watch her hands, to make sure she got all the strings and didn’t eat too many beans while we were working. When my husband and I moved away, I left intimate parts of myself behind, scattered across the farm and seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table. Turning to a life of the mind, I encountered different gates to open and walk through. And, just like my grandfather grieved the loss of his farm-place garden and life partner, I too mourned the loss of roots that grow stronger with the planting and reaping of each season.

We moved my grandparents from the farm place almost five years ago. My grandmother has since passed and my grandfather tends an established garden that feeds an entire Atlanta neighborhood. I have been slower to give myself over to a new place. This spring, however, my husband and I threw in our lot with those audacious enough to plant roots in this world and purchased our first home in Madison County, North Carolina. Six months after closing, I am in love with our small, unfashionable ranch with its simple rooms and gas burners and scarred wooden floors and a deep porch that catches the late afternoon light. I am also in love with the possibility of what a half acre hillside might yield.

And so, one weekend this fall, my grandfather and I broke ground together, digging into a soil with its own ancestors and histories. It’s humbling to work alongside a 93 year-old who can still out-lift me and who hasn’t yet mastered the concept of quitting time. The sun was hot, but not as hot as an Arkansas scorcher. And the day was long, but not as long as the farming days that began long before sunrise. We did as much as we could that the first day.

Bright and early the next morning, I picked up my grandfather who was staying at the nearby motel. As my grandfather settled into the passenger seat, it was my turn to proclaim, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.” After driving my grandfather down some back roads so that he could see farms and barns and cows that might remind him of his own, we pulled into the driveway and got to work. It was a holy and quiet time as we measured the rows and prepared the seeds for planting. We used an old cattle prod from the farm to tamp out the seed bed. My grandfather set out the first few rows and I came behind with the seeds. Side by side, we stepped into a generations-deep practice that binds us to one another and to the other places we have worked out ourselves in the soil.

There is much I could say about that morning, but what I remember most is how it felt to be planting my own garden with my grandfather. It was nothing short of a homecoming. In this season of my life, I am beginning to understand what my grandfather learned when he moved the garden first from the farm to the backyard only to start over again in Atlanta’s fertile ground. He might not say so, but I imagine that my grandfather would agree that what and where we plant is no more important than the act of planting itself. It’s the tending of soil and seed that makes a homeplace, teaching us to dig in and grow, wherever we are. Every single day. 

February 1, 2020