Mr. A’s Last Garden

In August, 1968, my parents moved with us to the little town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve where I more or less grew up.  I was just shy of three years old.  My earliest memory is of the first night we spent in our new home.  My mother hadn’t even had time to put the beds together, so she just laid the mattresses out on the living room floor.  I remember looking up at the ceiling and thinking there were no lights in the room.  And in fact that’s the only room in their house (they still live there) that does not have an overhead light fixture.

We lived at the end of a dead-end street.  The street runs to the end of the subdivision and has lots of roughly one acre down either side of the street.  My parents bought the last three lots on our side of the street, the lot with their house and the lot on either side, both of which were heavily wooded.  Between us and our nearest neighbors on our side of the street there were another two lots, one of which was pretty well overgrown with scrub trees and blackberry bushes.  Across the street there was no one until you got to the lot right across from the blackberry patch (in other words, the last four lots on that side were all still woods).

The city (we were just barely inside the city limits back then) hadn’t black-topped the streets in our neighborhood just yet, so they were all chip-and-seal.  In the summer the tar would semi-liquefy and bubble.  I didn’t wear a whole lot of shoes back then, and so during the summer months I’d get the tar all over my feet, although by the time it was time to come inside for supper, I’d usually worn it right back off running through the woods.

There was all manner of neat stuff in the woods, from ancient tires someone had thrown out to huge tree stumps (the place had been logged, probably back before World War I, to judge by the size of the trees, the largest of which looked to be in the 40-60-year-old range) to the odd piece of lumber, or old barbed wire from fences.  Occasionally you could find something really unusual; I once found a Kennedy half-dollar in our back yard.  It must have been dropped by one of the men digging the septic system (based on where I found it, namely in the middle of the drain field).  You could vanish in those woods all day long.  Actually, I suppose one ought to say that you felt like you could vanish, because after all the total area was less than ten acres all told, and how invisible can you get in that little woods.  But for a four-year-old it felt like the far side of the moon when I’d step through the tree line.

The neighborhood was alive with kids and dogs.  In ages the kids ranged from several around my brother’s and my ages all the way up to high school.  I recall the high school boys seeming to be just unspeakably big, powerful, and sophisticated.  One kept one’s mouth closed in their presence.  I don’t recall a whole lot of girls about, or at least not many who ran with the larger group of others.  There was one I do recall, who was rougher than two miles of dirt road and who by the time she was in high school was not only smoking but chewing tobacco as well.  I never recall hearing anything untoward about her morals, but I guess she was what you’d describe as very much a tomboy.  No one gave her much of any grief that I recall.

In terms of behavioral standards I’d say we pretty much covered the waterfront, except for the extremes at either end.  By way of example, there were a brother and sister; the brother narrowly missed getting sent off to reform school on any number of occasions (zero leadership at home: his mother was an idiot and his father hadn’t drawn a sober breath that anyone in town could recall since sometime in the 1940s), and the sister had perfect attendance for all 12 years of school and now has her Pharm.D.  Go figure.  I don’t recall anyone being just downright mean or evil, though, and no one who was notoriously a goody-two-shoes either.

One street over there was a family that had a swimming pool.  You have to understand that no one, at that time and in places like that, had their own swimming pool.  There was a doctor who lived at the very far end of our street and who also had one.  The former fellow had his money from running an auto salvage operation and used car lot.  We always heard rumors about his hit-and-miss punctiliousness about car titles, but I’m not aware that anything was every pinned on him.  What made them interesting to me was the fact that the wrecked cars that he kept for salvage he staged on land below their house (they had quite a few acres adjoining the subdivision).  We used to go nosing around back there to see just how badly you could wad up a 1960s-vintage car.  I recall once seeing a car with an oval impression in the windshield, right above the steering wheel.  There was some sort of dried, dark something around it.

On the other side of the neighborhood, between our subdivision and the next one over, there was a tract of perhaps 50 or so acres (I’m just guessing) of really deep woods, criss-crossed by creeks and cut up by dark gulleys.  There were some huge trees back in there, too.  A good friend of mine and I, when we were sophomores in high school and both of us had arms well over 34 inches, could barely touch hands around the trunks of some of them.  That land’s long since been logged and cut up into building lots and built out.  I remember seeing some of the stumps after they’d logged it.  You could seat a family of four around them and fit a decent meal on the tops.

It was a perfect place to be a little boy, in other words.

In the summer I’d head up to those blackberry bushes and pick blackberries until I couldn’t stand the heat and mosquitoes any more.  As I recall I’d end up eating as much as I picked (why ever not?), and so my yield as a field hand wasn’t very impressive.  Sometimes I got more than blackberries; I still recall the infestation of chiggers around the groin that I got one year.  Man alive; anyone who wants to experience a genuinely exquisite torture may as well start there.

Our next-door neighbors on that side of the road were an older couple.  We’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. A.  When I say “older,” what I mean is that they were observably older than my parents (who at that time would have been in their late 30s), and their two children — daughters — were ten or so years older than my brother and I.  In fact Mr. and Mrs. A were between eight and twelve years older than my parents.  Mrs. A taught elementary school in the public school system, and was a principal reason why my mother sent my brother and me — two good little Protestant children — to the Catholic school in an even smaller town about 20 miles from us.  Lincoln once observed that after age 40 you have the face you deserve.  She did.  Mr. A as I recall worked for Purina or some other agricultural supplier.

Right next to the lot where their house stood was a lot they owned on which they kept a garden.  Every summer Mr. A would put out a magnificent garden.  It was roughly two-thirds of an acre, I suppose, at its greatest extent and he raised just about everything that would grow in this part of the country.  When I was tiny I’d wander up the street and tag along behind him as he went up and down the rows, spraying for bugs, pulling up Johnson grass (I thought he was just calling it that because their neighbors had that name), snipping off dead shoots and leaves, and so forth.  He’d always explain to me what he was doing and why.  When things got ready he was always good for an ear or several of corn, or acorn squash (which I adore to this day), or a watermelon, or some tomatoes.  His gardens always flourished, mightily, and you could always tell spring was on its way when he got out his plow and tiller and started laying out that year’s garden.

The folks who lived in the house facing Mr. and Mrs. A’s (on the cross street to ours) also kept a garden that regularly won awards of various kinds.  Those weren’t the only two vegetable gardens in the neighborhood but they were easily the biggest and most elaborate.

Because of the age spread between their daughters and us, and because they were daughters, after all (ick!!), and because we didn’t go to the local public schools, I never really got to know them terribly well.  They went to this particular beetle-brow church where it was official teaching that you were going to hell not only if you went to a different denomination from them, but if you went to any other church even of their same denomination.  I know that because there was a good number of families in town who went there and I did know a lot of kids who grew up in that church.  I still remember the time — it was fall of my first year in public school (6th grade) — and this one kid solemnly informed me that all Roman Catholics were going to hell.  Since I had two sets of R.C. cousins, of all of whom I thought and still think very highly, I had some difficulty wrapping my mind around that.  Additionally, since we went to the only Episcopal church for miles and miles around, and since the modal age of that congregation was about 148 or thereabouts (it wasn’t until I was in high school that they got electric lights, and not until I was out of college that they got running water), I just wasn’t used to religious teaching being pitched quite that strongly.

The As weren’t “bad” people, though.  Once Mrs. A called my mother, all a-twitter because she’d heard that “a Catholic family” was going to buy one of our lots and build a house.  My mother assured her that no, we weren’t going to be selling to anyone.  My father, an irreverent soul, told my mother afterwards, “You should have told her we were selling to a family of Jews with six children.”

Whatever the peculiarities of their religious beliefs, they were good neighbors.  I’m sure that if anything too far out of line had been observed going on, Mrs. A would have been on the horn to whichever set of parents needed to break out the strap and tune up their children.  Their yard was always orderly, their daughters grew up to be productive, decent people, and so far as I’ve ever heard they minded their own business, wherever they thought the rest of us were going to spend eternity.  The sort of people you want in your neighborhood, in other words.

And year in and year out, Mr. A would lay out that garden.  Over the decades (it’s been over 30 years since I left high school) a part of every return trip to my parents was observing Mr. A’s garden and how big it was this summer and how it was doing.  He got less ambitious over the years, and by these past four or five he’s had maybe ten or twelve rows, maybe 200 feet long each.  Can’t blame him; he was 91 his last birthday.  If I can still sling a hoe or dig potatoes when I’m 90, I am officially going to do a victory dance (right before I go out and get myself a fifth of scotch, a carton of cigarettes, and a 19-year-old; I’m going out with a smile).

Over the years I’ve wondered when he was ever going to stop.

This year we’ve had a cool summer so far.  It’s not been wet, but we’ve had a bit more rain than in some recent summers when everything burned to a crisp.  It’s been good weather for gardens, in other words.  Mr. A’s corn especially has been coming along well; it’s getting up for chest high.  His other stuff seems to be doing pretty well also.

Mr. A died last Saturday.  He’d been diagnosed with lung cancer a couple of months ago, inoperable and widely metastasized.  So far as I have any reason to suspect, he never touched tobacco.  Or liquor.  On the other hand, at age 91, what reason does your body need for cancer, I guess is the answer.  They gave him something like three to four months.  When driving down to my parents, I’d still see him out every so often, in his garden, but I couldn’t really tell if he was doing any work.  Maybe he was just saying good-bye to that patch of the world that was his to tend for 50 years (they bought their house in 1964), and from which he’d teased untold quantities of the Lord’s bounty.  Having worked, both literally and figuratively, in the Lord’s harvest all those years, he was about to become the harvest, and I do have reason to know that he was much preoccupied with where he was going to spend eternity.

I don’t know who’s going to take care of harvesting Mr. A’s last garden, but when everything’s gathered in and the remnants tilled into the soil — or even just left lying, this year — a fixture of life, for me at least, will have vanished.  As I mentioned, I never knew them terribly well, but I’ll miss him.  The world needs more to tend it, year in and year out, patiently, carefully, and lovingly.  Those who will work the tools God’s put in their hands.

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