Monday, June 19, 2017

My Father, the Vegetable Farmer


My Father, the Vegetable Farmer

            Come April my dad was out in the back yard turning over his vegetable plot, a perfect rectangle positioned between the patio and the garage. The hose to the well he had drilled was conveniently hanging just outside the garage, and he was religious about proper watering.  His lawn chairs were positioned just inside the open garage door where he sat to rest, to smoke, to savor a bit of Four Roses, and to “receive.” Once that garage door went up in the early morning, everyone in the neighborhood knew that Doc “was receiving.”
            Geezers, young fellows, and little children came and went all day long. They got cokes and watermelon and cheese if they liked but mainly talk. I believe they came for the talk. Once Dad was rested enough to get back to his garden, often his visitors did not leave. They did not even get up from their lawn chairs. They watched Doc till or weed or water. The little kids, of course, wanted to help, to dig with the shovel or set the seedlings in. The men wanted to advise or compliment as appropriate.
Sometimes Dad and another fellow would disappear for an hour or so and come back with fertilizer. When the circus was in town, they would go and ask for elephant manure and bring home buckets-full. Dad would find someone in the family, usually me it seemed, and thrust the bucket in my face. “Smell that. We’ll have some good tomatoes this year.” He loved to watch me cringe and turn my head. What would he do now that Ringling Brother got rid of their elephants and then even had to close down.
            Dad loved dirt and talked about his dirt all season long. He was so proud of the soil he gave to his vegetables to grow in. It was black and loamy and luscious. All summer long it fed his tomatoes and peppers, summer squash and zucchini, cucumbers and occasional radishes. And all summer long they fed us.
What he did not grow, he bought from the farmers’ market. Our farmers’ market back then was not the sophisticated affair that many farmers’ markets are today. A permanent semi-circle of shelters, a roof and a table, gave the sellers some shade through their hot day. All of the sellers were very small farmers, some even backyard farmers, who came to town each Saturday.
            Dad was a frequent enough customer that folks knew him, and he knew which growers had the best value for the price in his opinion. They did not know each other’s names, but they spoke with the familiarity of people who get together once a week. At the farmer’s market, Dad wanted corn, kale, collards, or mustard greens, and watermelon or peaches.
            Summer was tomato sandwiches on lightly toasted white bread with salt, pepper and mayonnaise for lunch, cucumbers every night for supper, summer squash fried down with heaps of onions and lots of black pepper every Sunday dinner along with some of those greens from the market and maybe a peach cobbler for dessert. We enjoyed zucchini bread when Mama felt like baking, which was often. And there was watermelon in the backyard, cold from the refrigerator Dad kept in the garage for entertaining when he was receiving.
            We did eat protein. But in the summer meat seemed merely a compliment to the vegetables, except for pork. Dad would drive into North Carolina with a friend for pork that the farmer made available from the poor pig on that very day. And Dad fished for spot and croaker or bought them from the men who brought their boats in at Harrison’s Pier. Summer pork and fish out of the bay have almost nothing in common with a pot roast in winter. They are more like ripe tomatoes fresh off the vine.
            Mama took care of the flowers and of food in the winter. But food in the summer was my Dad’s. It was not his responsibility but his great enthusiasm. When spring arrived, he donned his warm-weather uniform, a horizontal striped tank top, plaid Bermuda shorts, and bare feet. He died on April 23, 1991. It was sudden and merciful. His heart played out as he tried to rise from his bed, and he was gone. He had already turned over his vegetable garden. I flew down to Norfolk that morning when I got the call, cried with and tried to console my mother, took care of some of the funeral business, what Emily Dickenson calls “the solemnest of industries enacted upon earth,” and then went out back for a quiet moment alone. There in the soft dirt of Dad’s vegetable garden, in his beloved dirt, were his footprints, probably from the day before. Mama set in the plants he had bought and bravely harvested his vegetables that year.


Jenny Sullivan
Father's Day 2017