We planted corn in our garden this afternoon. Since we moved to the south, I don’t usually plant corn in the garden because bugs seem to enjoy it more than we do. But the boys begged to plant some this year and I was feeling sentimental, so I went ahead.
“Why would you feel sentimental about planting corn?” you might ask.
Well, for the same reason that listening to Paul Simon, making fresh salsa, eating huge bowls of ice cream and laying out in the sun for way too long makes me feel sentimental. Because of my dad.
My dad taught all of his daughters how to plant corn. The majority of our childhood gardens were devoted to corn, since it seemed to grow so well in my home state. I have so many fond memories of preparing the ground with a rented rototiller, and racing my sisters down the long rows with hands full of seed to see who could plant the most. Dad taught us about fertilizing with ‘chicken shit’- the only time it was permissible to use that word. He taught us about, weeding, watering, thinning the rows and pulling the ‘suckers’ off when they started to get bigger. If we wanted to go to summer camp, we had to weed so many rows per week. And if the corn wasn’t “knee high by the fourth of July” we would begin to worry. But we always seemed to have a good harvest either way.
I always seem to think a lot about dad at this time of year, and I realize more and more that it is because he always seems to come alive when the weather grows warm. Summer and dad go together hand in hand. He is a California boy, transplanted to the gray and rainy Pacific northwest and I know the winters there are always hard on him. I think of him even more now as his memory fails him, and he begins to fade from this life. I shed tears when a song comes on that I know he loves, or even when I see that tiny little golden kernel of corn in my hand. I get panicky that I will start to forget all the good memories of my dad, and so I rush to the computer to write things down. So don’t mind me if I get a little rambly as I wander down memory lane.
When I was sixteen, there was a bit of a crisis in my family. My dad was experiencing incredible strain and stress at work- so much so that we were praying for a new job for him. Things got worse and worse as we progressed through one of the rainiest winters of my childhood, (which is saying something,) and it felt like we hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. (which we probably hadn’t.) My mom was working full time as well, trying to help keep all six of us in private school. We as a family, also worked as the janitors for our high school to try and keep tuition down. If dad lost his job, we weren’t sure what we would do. The days of that winter seemed particularly long, cold, rainy and dark- off to school before sunrise, so mom could get to work on time. And since the sun set around 4 PM, it was usually dark when we got home and threw some dinner together. Then it was studying ’til bed time and do the whole thing again the next day.
The aura of stress around dad that winter was so palpable that when he finally quit his job, we were relieved for his sake. But then came the hunt for a knew job- the indeterminate amount of time where dad was without a pay check and things were very uncertain. My mother never worried out loud, but we all new things were tough. And then we got in a car wreck on the way home from school one night. (it was dark and rainy, if you can believe it) None of us were hurt, but our damaged car and an injury to the other party added to the strain. I distinctly remember that it was the first time I really began to feel how heavy a thing life can be.
But it was a good time too. There seemed to be an understanding between us girls that we should all be on our best behavior and make as light of things as we could. One afternoon, we got home from school and since we knew mom and dad would be home late, we decided to try and come up with something good for dinner. To our dismay- there was next to nothing to eat in the house. It had been a long time since dad had been paid. But instead of despairing, we all got the giggles and started reaching into the dustiest corners of the cupboards and hunting in the long forgotten recesses of the freezer. When mom and dad got home, the table was covered by many small sauce pans and skillets, all containing the oddest variety of warmed up canned goods and freezer burned vegetables. It was such a pathetic, and somewhat disgusting dinner that we all just laughed and laughed and carried on.
Dad had had several interviews, but nothing that seemed like a good fit, except for one job- and he was sure he would never get it. It was a position as a manager of a private business club very close to home. It was such a good position, and paid so much more than he had ever been paid, that he wouldn’t let himself hope.
“There were several other men applying who had much better credentials”, he would say, as if he didn’t really care.
But we all knew he really wanted that job, and we prayed hard for it. He went in for a second interview, and a third, and in the end, he got the job. Perhaps he didn’t have the best resume, but I am convinced to this day that he got the job based mostly on his vibrantly wonderful personality. No one can help loving dad.
The good thing about hard times is that they make even the little things of life so much better. I’ll never forget the joy of seeing my smiling mother stumbling through the kitchen door, arms overloaded with groceries, after dad got his first paycheck. Had there ever been such joy over a full fridge? And that year, the new job and the new prosperity combined beautifully with the Spring. The rain stopped, the sun shone and for Easter that year, we got to do something we had never done before. Instead of homemade or hand me down dresses, we all went to the mall to buy a new Easter dress. All of us, not just dad, seemed to come alive again that spring.
And soon it was time to plant corn again. But dad was busy settling into a new job. He didn’t think he would be able to plant a garden that year. We sisters were disappointed at first, but I think we had all learned a little something about stepping up to the plate through that long winter. We talked about doing it ourselves. Hadn’t dad shown us how? But when I pointed out that we couldn’t rent a rototiller, my oldest sister (whom I have always admired for her strength) simply grabbed a shovel and started tilling the garden by hand. Inspired by her determination, we all jumped in and did what we could. We dug the rows, we spread the ‘chicken shit’, we dropped the little golden kernels, covered them up and watered them.
And when dad got home that night with a smile on his face (when had he last come home from work smiling?) we got to show him what we had done.
It is a sweet memory, and it was a time of life lessons only beginning to be learned. Not only the lesson of learning how to plant a garden, but seeing for myself that-
“Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
“Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth and the time of singing has come.”
We have had many nights of weeping since then, and many long winters. But every spring since then, if possible, I have tried to plant a garden. Not just for the sake of memories, but for the lesson I need to learn new every year. And even now in this season, when I am too pregnant to wield a shovel, my heart swells to see my own children learning- digging the soil for me and handing me the seeds.