Home again from Toronto, and since this is a garden blog, I'll start with the garden entry, appending to it the Father Report with the latest news about my dad, who suffers from dementia and who had a debilitating stroke last fall. Later posts will proceed to the Tomato Mystery Problem, the somewhat garden-related entry, and to the entry having only the most distant relation to gardening.
I. The Garden stopover
On my way back from my spring trip to Toronto I stopped over in Minneapolis and helped some friends put in a tomato garden. On this visit, two months later, the plants towered over me.
Even bearing in mind that I am (well) under five feet tall, this is ridiculous.
Catherine was sixteen when she started babysitting my children; now she's thirty-six, married, and has her own child. It didn't come easily. She foolishly fell in love while working for the Peace Corps in Cameroon (whatever was she thinking), and while it may be true that the course of true love never does run smooth, the course of true love if you've fallen in love with an African and you're trying to get him into the US doesn't run at all: it limps along like a bicycle negotiating a road studded with house-sized boulders.
It took years of work to get Atango into the country. Now he's a citizen and finishing his degree in civil engineering management. What can I say: it's a story just dripping with happy endings.
I love visiting them. Catherine makes her famous (and if it's not it should be) chicken with figs and capers from The Silver Palate Cookbook (Catherine advises doubling the sauce), the three of us always have fascinating conversations, and they let me play with their baby and in their garden. Oh, and the guest room is in the basement, a real plus in a Minnesota summer. Living here in the dry Rocky Mountains, I'd forgotten what humidity felt like.
We'd cleared the ground—all six by eight feet of it—the year before, planting tomatoes and squash, but only the tomatoes had done well, so this year Catherine insisted that she was going to raise only tomatoes.
Not that I gave in without a fight. “You could put some peas along the fence,” I'd suggest, and she'd demure. “Okay,” I'd agree. “Just tomatoes. But if you ever do want to add something,” I'd say, just being helpful, “carrots do well in sandy soil.” She'd laugh. Hours later I'd idly observe that lettuce is very easy to grow and makes a great early crop in a tomato patch, since it thrives in cool weather when the tomatoes are small, and in summer the tomatoes provide needed shade. For some reason, Catherine did not leap up and announce that she'd changed her mind and now wanted a full, varied vegetable garden, please.
Catherine and Atango's yard, in a suburb north of
Minneapolis, has amazingly sandy soil. Nothing could be more different from the
heavy clay I face here at home in Montana. I insisted on compost so there'd be
something to hang onto the nutrients in the fertilizer, and wished mightily
that the box stores we went to would stock coconut coir, the environmentally
sustainable and nearly pH-neutral alternative to peat.
A marathon shopping trip got us the compost, slow release fertilizer, turning fork and tomato plants needed, but no carrot or lettuce seeds, though I kindly pointed out the best varieties. The next day while Catherine was at work, Atango and I worked the soil and planted.
That was in mid-May.
I got back on July 23rd, about nine weeks after we'd put in eight or ten plants each eight or ten inches high, and the photograph at the top of this post gives some idea of what I found.
Its mind-boggling. My biggest tomato plants, of which I'm inordinately proud, are topping their extra-tall cages, but, well, they're nothing compared with the jungle in Catherine's yard. I spent several happy hours disentangling vines, setting up supporting sticks, snipping suckers and clipping tops, but I still suspect that the whole edifice will collapse of its own weight if half the fruit ever develops. They're already eating cherry tomatoes, and the biggest tomato I saw there must have had a diameter of five inches.
That was my last day away from home, a perfect one, as I always try to get lots of exercise just before a trip. It was made even more perfect (and anyone who claims that perfection does not come in degrees (nothing can be “more” or “less” perfect) is hereby invited to consult A River Runs Through It on the subject) when Catherine and Atango's year-and-a-half year old daughter Kelsy twice lifted her arms to me, asking to be picked up. The first time, out by the garden, Catherine had run inside, and when she returned to find Kelsey in my arms, she was utterly unimpressed. (She's one of those unflappable mothers.) One thing she liked about daycare, she said, was that children learned to be comfortable with other adults than their parents.
Now, I'm all for daycare, but I took umbrage at being lumped together with all those other adults. Clearly, when Kelsey lifted her arms to me, it proved we had a special bond. But Catherine failed to recognize this obvious truth.
That evening at supper, Kelsey eventually tired of her high chair and started crying, so Catherine released her and set her down. Gripping her beloved rabbit, she toddled around the table to me and lifted her arms.
Catherine went wide-eyed as I picked her up and she snugged into my lap. “Well!”
“I told you!”
“But that time I wasn't there. This time, she chose you!”
Really, holding a contented baby is right up there with gardening as one of the most perfect feelings in the world.
II. The Father Report
I found my father thinner and looking as if he'd taken up bare-knuckle boxing, with abrasions on nose and forehead and a cut just below one eye, the flesh still yellow from bruising. Fortunately my mother had warned me that he'd had a close encounter with a sidewalk just days before my arrival—she'd spent an unenvyable afternoon in the emergency room getting him stitched up—and now we're careful not to walk single file with him on the narrow, patched sidewalks near their home. One more thing to be aware of and careful about, one more piece of evidence that he is losing ground, as the ground rises up to strike him.
Connie (my mother—step-mother, if you want to split hairs, though people tell us we look alike so often that we've stopped correcting them) said she shed tears after that fall, because it measured so precisely how far he is from who he was.
“He'd never have fallen like that,” she said. “If he tripped—” and she paused, at a loss.
“—he'd dance,” I finished the sentence for her, seeing it in my head: my dad at a rare moment stumbling, and turning the recovery into a comic skip and hop, a quick sequence of light, nimble steps.
“Exactly,” Con agreed. “He'd dance. And this time—he fell flat on his face.”
And yet, we agreed, so much of him is still there, and visiting him is still a pleasure. He cannot speak, but he glows when he sees me, closes his eyes and lifts his head like a cat having its neck scratched when I sing, and laughs when I tell stories from childhood.
One of my favorites always gets a laugh: the time he and my mom had a party in our New York apartment, and I snuck (repeatedly) from my room near the noisy living room to my sisters' rooms at the other end of the long hall, growing increasingly bold and assured as I made the trip past bathroom, kitchen, and dining room doors undetected, until the time I was leaping lightly past the dining room door when it opened and my father, six inches away, said, “Boo.”
I shrieked, went straight up into the air, and came down in a heap. Overcome by mirth, my father had to hold onto the doorjamb to stay upright, but he was laughing so hard his grip loosened and he slid gradually down until he joined me on the floor, where we took turns pointing accusatory fingers at each other and breaking into fits of laughter, while my mother and the dinner guests stood above us with their martini glasses, shaking their heads in mock disapproval.
My childhood was far from ideal, but it did include ideal moments, and my dad was at the center of many of them.