Friday, June 19, 2009

Gardening Dreams

I've wanted a garden for years.
Growing up, I had several grandparents inspire in me the urge to grow. My grandpa Ray had a huge amount of land behind his house, to us city dwellers. He'd go out every year and till a good, wide patch for peppers, tomatoes, melons, and god knows what else. My grandpa Jim lived out of the way, in a tiny "blink and ya passed it" town called Princeton. His two acres sat between the local post office and the hardware store/mechanic. Across the way was public works (open only by appointment) and behind him, the Sacramento River. With his sandy soil and the town's "valley" cupping the scorching heat each summer, he grew tomatoes by the bushel and anything else he fancied. He would trade produce with a woman down the street for her chicken's eggs, bring ducklings to his window to show me, and always demanded I eat at least a tiny bite of onion with my country breakfast. My Texas grandparents, Evelyn and Miles, had a peach tree in their back yard and flowers in the front. Occasionally, my grandpa Miles would get an urge and we'd all head to the garden supply. I was always allowed to pick out at least one flower and, if it were a garden year, some seeds or starter plants. The ground was good for a couple of inches, and nothing but hard-pack clay below. Still, we managed to play around with our new babies throughout the seasons.
I still hear stories about my early escapades in the garden. How Ray told my mom there was "nothing out there" I could hurt and to let me be. A while later, I came in, beaming at him as every tiny pepper and tomato his plants had held rolled around in my cupped-up skirt. How I would crawl under the canopy of twining indeterminate tomato vines at Jim's place, playing with his chickens and ducks. The way I'd listen so carefully to Miles as he patiently explained for the tenth time that my plants won't have grown another inch since the day before and nod my agreement, only to run outside with the ruler, yet again.
I've dug tiny garden plots in every property my mother moved to, including her last. I'm still embarassed to see the dip in the exact center of the left half of her lawn, when I go to visit. Why couldn't I have done it in the back yard, or maybe off along the side of the house, why did I have to scar her lawn - her landlord's lawn? She still jokes about it and I still defend my reasoning. The other spots wouldn't have had enough sun, and besides she sure seemed to enjoy the hell out of the garlic, onions, peppers, and tomatoes I'd brought in. Years later, when my grandpa would be moved into the little "in-law cottage" behind my mother's house, I'd plant an apple sapling in a giant plastic "drinks" tub and bury cut-off sprouts from her russets in back, where my grandpa could watch them from his chair by the window. My aunt and I would dig up little potatoes and cut down swathes of white and yellow iris to bring in and marvel over with him.
Over a year after his passing, years after I'd planted my potatoes and moved away, my mom still finds tiny ones in the dirt, dug up by the new "back neighbor's" dog.

These men taught me something more important than being outside or risk/reward behaviour.. They taught me to respect my land, to respect my food, and to know the pleasure of growing something with your own labor.

I haven't had a garden - even a plant - in years. I moved out of Jim's place, away from owned land and wide spaces. I met and fell in love. I marveled at living in an apartment for the first time since my very first years. I was ecstatic over hot, running water that was safe to drink. A toilet that didn't lead to a septic tank. Showering inside. Walking down the street for cigarettes or a gallon of milk. Pizza delivery, having access to a phone and a car. Internet! I didn't need a plant; I could hang over our tiny, ground-level patio and look at the bushes and grass of the apartment complex.
We would move many times, after that. Renting half a house owned by out of state family, with in-laws as roommates, sharing a rented house with other in-laws, struggling to maintain rent on the same house alone, downgrading to one side of a duplex. At each place, a familiar refrain: "Can I have a garden?"
And then... the housing market was dealt a set of terrible blows. Prices had gone up from 'expensive' to 'unreasonable' and then 'you're kidding me!' The bottom fell out. Those that had taken out loans and mortgages on such high values couldn't keep up. Banks reclaimed, real estate officials donned sackcloth and ash, proclaiming "the end is nigh". And off in a little room, our little GRIM cried. Soon, grandparents were thinking about the tiny, wriggling bundle's future as well as their own.
We call what we do here "renting", but really.. we're paying back a long-term loan. We have a house. We have a pair of yards - front and back. We're in a safe, quiet neighborhood. There's a park just down the street, and the elementary school GRIM will one day attend is just beyond our fence. We. Own. A. Yard.

"Can I have a garden?"
"Well, it'd take a lot of work..."
"Duh. Can I have a garden?"
"There's still a lot that needs to be done *inside* the house."
"Noted. Can I have a garden?"
"...If you help, yes. You can have a garden."

This.. is my sandbox. I will take all I have learned at the knee of my elders, and make it something they would be proud of.

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