Sunday, May 29, 2005

Memory Garden

For most of my life, my father kept a garden. Though we lived inside the Birmingham, Alabama, city limits, my country born and bred father found a way to set aside a little room in the back yard for his beloved vegetable garden. He'd till a little patch about twenty feet long by six feet wide, planting two or three rows of his favorite vegetables. Always tomatoes. Usually yellow crook-neck summer squash and sweet banana peppers. Sometimes he'd set up bean poles and we'd have fresh green beans. We tried zucchini for a year or two until we realized we'd never be able to eat as much zucchini as the plants produced. And there was what I call The Year of the Turnip Greens. I didn't eat turnip greens again for nearly a decade.

But the tomatoes were his true love. His favorites were the firm, sweet Atkinsons and the Better Boys, but from time to time he'd get adventurous and we'd have Romas or Tommy Toes. We ate them fresh and warm from the garden, sliced and salted between two pieces of bread smeared with mayonnaise. To this day, there's nothing that tastes better to me than a homegrown tomato sandwich.

About twelve years ago, my father had a debilitating stroke. Though he regained his speech and his ability to walk, his right hand ended up curled into a mostly-useless claw, and his balance was off. But he still managed to grow his garden every year, with my mother's help, right up until the last year of his life, when my parents moved out of the city to a suburb north of town. The new house had a huge back yard and plenty of sunshine--the ideal place for a new garden. Ironic that my father was too weak by that time to be able to take advantage of the larger space.

I moved out of my rental house, which I hated, to move in with my parents. Combining our incomes helped make the move financially viable for all of us, and I liked being with my parents as they were getting older. Sadly, a little over three months after we moved, my father had another massive stroke. A week later, he died in the hospital while my mother held his hand.

Not long after my father died, I was cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer when I came across a small box in the freezer. When I opened it, I found dozens of vegetable seeds, some store-bought and others saved from plants my father grew himself. On one small envelope, in my father's spiky scrawl, were the words: "Atkinson Tomato Seeds—guard at all costs." Tears filling my eyes, I turned to my mother and told her, "I can't throw these out." She agreed, and the box of seeds went back into the freezer.

A couple of weeks ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to start a potted garden on the back deck. The deck gets plenty of sun and we could attach long boxes to the wood rails and plant herbs in them, and put large pots along the edge of the deck for some tomato plants. Now we have a lovely herb garden and large, thriving tomatoes on our back deck. Excited about my horticultural success, I decided to start some plants from seed, which also quickly began to thrive. Heady with green-thumb power, I started thinking about what other kinds of vegetables we could grow in a potted garden.

Then this morning, as I was getting ice from the freezer, I spotted the box of seed packets. And in those packets were all sorts of vegetable seeds--summer squash, eggplant, spinach, and my father's precious Atkinson tomatoes, among others. All the seeds I need to create a special sort of memory garden in honor of my father. It was as if my father was telling me, "It's time to let these go. To use them how I would have wanted."

Will the seeds still be viable after over a decade, in some cases, in the freezer? I have no idea. But in honor of my father, this week, I'm going to find out.


Suzanne said...

That's a great idea, Paula. After my brother's wife died, he made a memory garden for her. It took him the whole summer after she died to dig it out and plant it. It was really therapeutic for him.

Paula said...

During a lull in the rain today, I planted the seeds in little starter cups. I'll try to keep everyone up on whether or not they actually sprout.