The Garden Patch

I have an ambivalent relationship with vegetable gardening due to my youth on a Tennesee farm.  The upside of a vegetable garden is obvious.  We had homegrown tomatoes from about July 4 through the rest of the summer, juicy, sweet and picked when they were ripe, not shipped in from Florida or Mexico.  If you wanted green beans for dinner, you went out and picked some.  Silver Queen sweet corn was so flavorful it really didn’t need butter.  Cucumbers, cantaloupe–Mother cut it up in slices and kept a gallon jar full in the refrigerator–“shelly” beans, all were grown every year.  There’s not much better than a thick slice of ripe, homegrown Big Boy tomato on a hot biscuit with butter.

The downside for me was two issues:  hard, manual labor, and bugs.  A large garden has to be hoed to get rid of the weeds, if you want to have any significant amout of produce.  And gardens are not like grocery stores.  You cannot shop when you need something.  When the garden “comes in,” you have to pick, eat, freeze, can and/or share.  One memorable summer the Kentucky Wonder pole beans would not stop bearing, I suppose due to optimal rain and sun.  Mother and I canned or froze a total of 100 quarts of beans.  I walked between the rows muttering, “Die, bastards, die.”  We even canned two bushels for Aunt Eunice in exchange for her making a slipcover for the couch.  And Kentucky Wonders are string beans, so you have to string them as well as break them before canning or freezing.  I resented the extra work.

Our garden was not organic by any stretch, since Daddy put a little fertilizer in the soil before we planted (not much, or you got all leaves and no fruit, so to speak).  We also used a pesticide on the young plants, but once they started bearing we couldn’t safely do that.  So bugs became a presence by the time we were ready to harvest from the garden.

The worms that get in ears of corn weirded me out, but they at least were not belligerent.  My real battles were with the blister bugs, or blister beetles, to give them their proper name.  The ones in our garden lived on the tomato plants.  They were one to two inches long with vertical black and white stripes.  If I approached a plant with a blister bug on it, the bug would do a sort of push-up and elevate its rear legs, the better to spray my hand with acid.  The acid raised blisters on anything it touched.  I learned to carry a stick with me so I could knock off any blister bugs that threatened, although I had to be careful not to knock them onto another plant where I planned to pick.

So I don’t have fond memories of gardening back in Tennessee.  Every once in a while the impulse to grow something still rises.  I used to grow tomatoes on my balcony, which my boyfriend called “the back forty,” but quit when I realized they were the most expensive tomatoes I’d ever had, and not very good to boot.  The kind you can grow in pots are not very flavorful.  I have the occasional pot of herbs along with the flower boxes, just to prove I still have it.  I could have a truck patch if I had to, but please don’t make me do it!

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Blooming Grove

Dogwoods by Albert Bierstadt

            The white clapboard church is barely set back from the asphalt road, an old cemetery on one side, the raw red brick parsonage on the other.  The church is small and spare, with only a steeple for adornment.

            My car pulls into the small parking lot, spitting gravel and dust as it halts.  There are battered pickup trucks, washed and polished sedans, a couple of jacked-up muscle cars.  It is already hot, although it is not yet 11 in the morning.  The air is thick with humidity, a dense wall almost too thick to breathe.

            The men stand outside by the front porch, smoking and talking.  Their faces are sun-reddened.  They wear short-sleeved shirts and ties, and have removed their dark suit jackets in the heat.  They will put them on to go in the church, then take them off again and fold them carefully before the sermon starts. 

            I go up the worn concrete steps into the vestibule, suddenly dark and a little cooler, and emerge into the sanctuary.  The old, dark wood floors are muffled with runners of faded red carpet on the aisles.  The pews are old, dark wood as well, hard and slippery from generations of churchgoers.

            The white walls are bare.  There is no cross on the wall or statues in niches.  There are only a bare wooden pulpit, a small choir loft, a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, and a communion table—the altar, we call it—with a vase of flowers left over from a funeral, beginning to wilt.

            The sanctuary smells of dusty carpet, furniture polish, the wilting flowers, and people beginning to sweat as the room fills.  The women’s polyester flowered dresses are bright against their husbands’ Sunday suits.  I fan myself with a paper fan on a wooden stick.  It is printed with a scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is kneeling in a white robe and praying, pinned  in a beam of white light like a deer in the headlights.

            Then the preacher comes in, the choir loft fills with my aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, and the service begins.  The preacher cannot stir me.  I am impervious to his thin, nasal voice; the mistakes in his grammar gall me.  His collar is too big.  My heart is harder than stone, it oozes contempt like the asphalt road outside oozes tar.

            But I am undone all the same.  It is the old country hymns, sung by untrained voices.  My uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my neighbors sing harmony without effort or thought, singing a melancholy song their parents sang to them.  They sing, “O come, angel band, come and around me stand/O bear me away on your snow white wings/ To my immortal home.”

            And I am borne away on those wings, out the back door of the church, into the green graveyard.  Ancient cedar trees shade the graves; the breeze whispers through the branches.  My grandparents are there, and my great-grandparents, and my great-great grandparents.  The old, grey stones are worn and crooked.  They are simple, no fancy carvings, no weeping Victorian angels.  They sink into the mossy graves.   There is no room for anyone else.  The past owns this place.