by Terry Hargrove
Marshall County, Tennessee has four inches of top soil that rests upon 4000 cubic miles of limestone. It’s not exactly God’s Country if you own a plow. The Dad grows tomatoes. That’s all he grows, and when his tomato plants go out, he declares immediate and total war on all critters, toddlers, birds and insects that dare intrude upon Tomato Land. He plants according to the Farmer’s Almanac signs, waters his tomato plants twice a day, prays over the tender shoots, covers them if the temperature drops below 45, and patiently waits for a harvest. Last year was The Dad’s best crop ever. He picked 27 tomatoes from the vine. Because The Dad doesn’t like tomatoes, he gave them all away.
I don’t garden. I don’t even know if that’s a verb. Scooting on my knees in the mud, covered by a huge floppy hat, armed with a rusty pair of pruning shears and hanging out in the elements with the snakes and bees and wasps and spiders for company reminds me of boot camp.
“Look at that man,” sighed mom from the kitchen a few years ago. She could look out over the sink and see The Dad in the backyard, poised with a 50 cent slingshot. There had been some trouble with squirrels.
“Why does he spend so much time with those tomatoes?” I asked.
“Your father likes to garden,” she said. “But he’ll break out somebody’s window with that thing.”
“How much work does it take to get something to grow?” I asked. “Throw out a few seeds, add some water, let the sun shine and Nature takes care of it.”
“I don’t think your dad’s gardening is about growing anything,” she said. “He left school when he was 10 to work the fields, and now he’s trying to get back to that, maybe. Back to the fields or back to being 10. I don’t know why he does it. Course, I’ve only known him for 51 years. Be sure to take some tomatoes when you go.”
As I left, I waved at The Dad. He took his gaze away from the tree limbs and smiled when he saw the plastic bag of maters I was toting home. A rabbit hopped between his feet, hooked a green tomato from near his ankle, and ambled lazily away.
That weekend, I drove back to see the folks. The Dad was on the ground with my younger brother’s BB gun, scanning the neighbor’s yard with a deadly and practiced aim. He’d found out about the rabbits. As he reclined there, the squirrels above him were chewing on some tomato stalks and watching. The Dad was always jumpy when he was armed, so I walked around to the front of the house. My mom was furiously shoveling dirt into a huge pit next to the house.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Gardening,” she replied. “Hand me that pick, will you?”
I handed the pick to her, took the shovel, and begin to move the pile of fresh earth back into its place. Mom sat on the porch and started talking.
“Your uncle died,” she said.
“I have an Uncle Munge?” I asked.
“Not anymore,” she said. “His real name was Edward. He was an older brother of
mine, but we haven’t talked in a long time. There was something… not right about him.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“Well, he had trouble with kids. His daughter Mary ran away from home when she was 14, and she’s written all of us about growing up in Munge’s house. It wasn’t… he wasn’t real good with children. He only came here once, when you kids were little, and wanted to spend the night. Your daddy wouldn’t let him, and we haven’t seen Munge since. Anyway, he died last night. He knew something was wrong with him, so he left his body to science. To Vanderbilt, I think. So they could find out maybe why he… what was wrong with him. So there won’t be a burial or anything. His wife Percussion died two years ago.”
“I have an Aunt Percussion?”
“Not anymore,” said mom. “I don’t know what her real name was. And nobody knows where Mary is.”
And then, even though it was very warm, I felt a slight shiver, I stared at the dirt under my feet. Could mom have…?
“He’s in Vanderbilt,” said mom. “Really.”
“Mom? What are you going to plant here?”
“I thought you said you were gardening?” I asked.
“I am,” she said. “And I also said gardening wasn’t always about growing things. Learned that from your father, I did. If it bothers you, I’ll put some buttercups and daffodils out next fall.”
And so, for the next two years, I lived with the fear that my mother had buried Uncle Munge in the front yard.
Oh, I don’t think that anymore. True, there is no stone for Uncle Munge, no memorial for him anywhere, no mention of him when my aunts come by to talk, and the daffodils look great. For us, it’s like he never existed at all. But for Mary he was real enough, and for mom, although she never talked about him again after that day.
Gardening isn’t for growing things. The Dad taught us that. Gardening is for digging and watching and patiently waiting and fiercely protecting. And maybe, in the rarest of times, for burying things so deep one might be free of them forever.