Papa Was a Garden Gnome

We have a garden at our farm. Not like my suburban garden, full of hostas, spiderwort and hydrangea, but a “Garden garden.” The previous owners were real farmers and had a huge, lovely vegetable garden, overflowing with tomatoes, squash, beans, and a beautiful strawberry patch. While I’m a halfway decent suburban gardener, I’m a lousy farm gardener because – guess what? – you have to tend a farm garden. The first year we tried, we ended up with a weed garden that had a few spindly vegetables fighting for existence.

Whenever I am working in the garden, I think of my dad. A son of Irish immigrants, he had a deep love for the land: nurturing it, fiddling around with the soil and whatnot. It’s not like he was a farmer by any means. He as a lawyer, an estate planner, a numbers guy. But he loved a beautiful yard, a large expanse of freshly cut grass with beautiful flowers tucked in around it. 

When I was two years old, he moved our family of eleven into a house on an acre of land in Rocky River, which is a good-sized plot for a suburb. Our family spent the next 33 years working every square inch of that yard, weeding it, cutting it, planting it, trimming it. With 9 kids and an ever-growing army of grandchildren providing free labor, Big Jack would dream up all sorts of projects to direct us. Dad had 5 sons who were coming of age at the height of the mid-60’s. Any parent knows that a busy teen is a tired teen and a tired teen is much less likely to be a naughty teen. (My brothers proved that axiom wrong, but still it was a good thought.) So it was Jack’s mission to keep us all tired.

Every Saturday growing up, our yard was abuzz with activity. My older brothers were in charge of heavier manual labor – hauling grass clippings, cutting the grass (another never-ending chore). My job was to weed the front myrtle patch. And the grass. And the flower beds. It was a Sisyphean chore, never, ever done. I’m sure Jack sprinkled weed seeds around that garden at night, just to keep us all busy weeding the damned thing all summer long.

I was the only person I knew whose job it was to weed the “wild grass” from the front law. On scorching summer days, as friends would pedal by our house on their way to the pool or Dairy Queen, I would be bent over, like a crop worker picking cotton, a hot sunburn cooking at the base of my back where my t-shirt would ride up. Hard work for a gal who was up until 1 a.m. watching Johnny Carson with her mom (there are benefits to being the youngest of 9). Any friend who wanted to play got roped into weeding with me so as to free me from my chores sooner.  By the end of the summer, they too had the “Mark of Jack,” that same low back sunburn.

Nothing pleased Jack more than a yard full of child laborers whom he rewarded every Saturday with freshly grilled “skin on wieners.” To this day I have no idea what those are, but of course it always sounded dirty. They were delicious, but after slaving in a hot, humid yard all day, sunburnt, freckled and dehydrated, I would have eaten a boot.

One of my other jobs in the yard was planting little pockets of flower gardens around. Because I was the youngest and smallest, Jack thought it was cute that I could fit under the bushes, squeeze behind the grill, duck in just under a window. I would battle the midgies and mosquitos and then, like an urchin chimney sweep, I’d emerge all dirt covered and sweaty, but the task was done --- a lovely little pop of color just outside the dining room window. A little floral surprise just under the sweep of the pine tree limbs. A tiny begonia bonanza under the mushroom lights over on the swale. I have to admit, it did look pretty as I lay with an ice pack on my head, applying Noxzema to my sunburn in the air-conditioned living room.

God, I hated working in that yard. But of course now, I am thankful for it. I am thankful for the time together with my family, all of us pissing and moaning and cursing under our breath. Talk about bonding. I am thankful for the lesson of hard work, working together for a shared goal. I am thankful for the lessons of cherishing the land, walking gently upon the earth, reducing, reusing, recycling. (A man who was years ahead of his time, he had 3 large compost piles at the back of the property to recycle grass clippings, leaves and yard waste.) And above all, as my nieces so beautifully said at my dad’s funeral almost 20 years ago, I am thankful for a dad who was wise enough to know that all the manual labor wasn’t about the yard at all. It was about us. About keeping a large family busy, engaged, in touch, humble. And yes, tired.

This Father’s Day, with the help of real farmers who know what they’re doing, we’ve figured out the vegetable garden (raised beds and plastic covering!). As I plant my little pots, weed my garden and look out over the awesome beauty of the sun rising over the mist covered hills of our farm, I will think of Jack, smiling down on me, arms akimbo with that big Irish grin. He would never say, “told you so,” or anything like that, but rather an understated “God love you,” or “Keep the faith.”

Thanks, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. You would so love this farm.