Thursday, January 24, 2008

The tomato was the first thing that I learned how to plant

I offer first my disclaimer. I am not a gardener. I am the son of a son of a Tennessee farmer. I am a man who will forever be only as tall as his father's belt buckle and who will always amble behind him. I am an inner city kid who grew up with soil underneath my fingernails, pollen in my eye ducts, and the smell of moist earth all in my sweat.

There was a corner in our backyard. It was about twenty five paces (from the vantage point of an eight year old) from our back door. It was where the sun first touched down early in the morning after skating down the sides of our neighbor's houses. It was this patch of dirt that my father claimed as his own. He was going to grow his own tomatoes here. I remember how proud he sounded when he said that as though he has just discovered some far off land. I was the eldest so of course I was going to help him.

It was sticky hot yet my dad insisted that we suit up because we were going to get dirty. The mosquitoes were voracious yet for some reason he didn't pay them no mind. He balanced that iron rake in my hands. He took a hoe himself. We went to work tilling that soil. Pebbles were actually peaks of rocks. Stubborn roots refused to budge. I would often get my rake tangled in the debris, tripping face first into the dust with my dad chuckling in the background. He told me that some obstacles in life you can't go full force against them. You have to charm them, move things around the obstacle, and let it move out of the way on its own.

The top soil that we laid down was like chocolate frosting. It was cool to my hands in the early morning sun. It smelled slightly nutty and crumbled moist between my fingers. He showed me how to make sure that I was applying an even layer. Make sure that you give everything the proper attention.

We were planting tomatoes, red vegetables with soft skin. He pulled my tiny arms to the side when I was placing the plants too close to each other. He warned me that putting them too close was like having my sister and brother too close to me. It would be one big mess. We both laughed looking like dusty wrestlers kneeling before some great Greco-Roman wrestling event. We had dirt war paint from us wiping the sweat from our foreheads. He told me that it is good for a man to have sandpaper hands. It took me years to understand what he meant by that.

He strung up the tomato plants on stalks while lecturing me about support. I recall the words about remaining true to myself, being a leader, and to not always follow the crowd. Together we drew a boundary of small wire fences. He anointed me a gardener and told me how we had to protect the first fruits. I learned that spiders and praying mantis are little watchmen that keep the pests away. When we stood up I could see how this little garden island existed in the corner of our backyard beyond concrete and weeds.

As those tomatoes drank in water, became lush red and heavy on the vine days flew by. My dad would never take full credit for the garden. It was our garden. In our garden he guided my hand to pluck that first tomatoes, sliced a thick sliver, salted it, and allowed me to savor that sharp tart goodness in my mouth.

Those days have passed now though. My father spends most of his time indoors. Since that time though I have brought a son into this world who is now eight. I think that it is about time for his hands to get dirty. I am not a gardener. I am the son of a son of a Tennessee farmer.

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