Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I went to my Grandfather's funeral with dirt under my fingernails...

It wasn't intentional, by any means, let me just make that clear. It was just that my inheritance from him happened to be a bowl full of okra seeds, soaked and ready for planting and boxes of tomato and pepper seedlings. He really wanted those seedlings transplanted. In fact, the day before he died, the kids and I were over at my Mother's transplanting his baby pepper plants. He was just too sick and in pain to do it, but that's about all he talked about.

My Grandpa was a traveler. He joined the Navy when he was a young man, and lived on and fought off a P.T. boat during WWII. After his enlistment, he traveled all over the country working construction jobs and doing his very best to provide for his family. He wasn't home much, but when he was, he would grow plants and take care of a garden. There's one story in particular that my Mom likes to tell: Grandpa was home for a bit, laid off from work, and they didn't have much money at all to live off of. He would go to the elementary school every day after school let out and dig through the dumpster for the individual size milk cartons. He would save whatever milk was left in them and Grandma would boil it at home to sanitize it. They would use it for cooking and baking. Grandpa took the milk cartons and planted tomato seedlings in them, and they would sell the seedlings on the side of the road to make some extra money.

As a child growing up, I always knew where to find my Grandpa Harry...either outside in his garden or in his basement, fixing something, making something or growing something. On Sunday afternoons after church I would follow him out into the back yard where we'd find some sort of garden chore that needed doing. I don't remember how many times Grandma or Mom reprimanded us for doing "dirty jobs" in our best was a lot, though. He had a corner of his basement that was dedicated to his gardening, with seeds breaking through the dirt in their trays, and seedlings under the fluorescent grow lights ready to go out in the garden or to a friend. I could stand in his little gardening area and smell the musty aroma of damp earth, with green growing things all around me. It felt so magical.

Out in his backyard he had a magic tree too. Every spring it would bloom in three different colors, and in the summer it had three different kinds of fruit on it. I was always in awe of that tree, and in my Grandpa's ability to grow such an amazing thing. Before he died, he passed along to me the knowledge he possessed about grafting different types of trees & plants. It's funny to me that even though I know the "how" behind it now, I don't find it any less magical.

Grandpa came to live with my Mom & Dad in the winter. They didn't have a lot of area for a garden, but that didn't stop him from poring through his seed catalogues and planning his garden anyhow. When springtime came he convinced Mom to purchase some seeds for him online; bell peppers, tomatoes, okra, and a new hybrid of jalapeno that he was so excited about..."all the flavor, none of the heat," the description read. Grandpa loved his peppers. As a child, there were many times I went running into the house coughing and sputtering after Grandpa handed me a pepper of some sort saying: "here, try a bite of this." Grandma would scold him for traumatizing me, but I don't think it bothered me as much as she must have thought. Now that I'm grown...I love hot peppers too.

The seed packets came in and Grandpa planted every seed...way more plants than they would have room for in the garden in the back. He had a plan though. "What if the church would let us put in a garden in that field in front of the parsonage?" he asked my Mom one day. "We could give the vegetables we grow to the food pantry." Mom figured the least she could do was ask, and so she did. We all thought it would take time to get it approved. "Maybe next year..." I remember thinking.

In the meantime, Grandpa's seeds were sprouting. As soon as their leaves come out, he started taking them out into the sun for a few hours every day. He wasn't getting around very well, so you could tell how important his seedlings were to him that he would put so much effort into making sure they got just the right amount of water, and just the right amount of sunlight. They were his babies. When he was hospitalized, he asked about them every day, and gave very detailed instructions of how to take care of them. Mom even re-potted one of his hybrid jalapeƱos to take to the hospital so he could make sure they were growing well, to reassure him.

He came from the hospital under hospice care, so we all knew there wouldn't be much time left with him. The church board of trustees surprised us with a very quick response in approval of the garden project. The ground was prepared and a groundbreaking day was chosen for the Sunday after he came home. He was too weak to participate but we hoped to at least get him into the car and to the garden where he could watch. His peppers and tomatoes still needed to be transplanted, though, and with Mom busy taking care of him, that very privileged responsibility fell to me. After we transplanted the peppers into their new pots Thursday evening, we took them into his room to get his approval. He ran his fingers over the plants very gently, just barely caressing the tender leaves. Then he looked at me and, between ragged breaths, began to tell me to be careful about leaving them in the sun too long right after they were transplanted. They had to be out for the right amount of time, at just the right time of day. "Those tomatoes need to be transplanted too, don't forget," he said. I told him I would be back the next day to take care of them. I didn't get to hug him before we left...he was just in too much pain to be touched. But I told him I loved him & we'd see him tomorrow.

That night he took a turn for the worse, and by the next morning he was gone.

Several days went by in a fog, and then in the rush of funeral arrangements and out-of-town family. The day of his funeral, I found myself back at my parents' house dropping off food between the visitation and the service. As I passed by the windows looking out onto the back porch, I caught glimpse of the tomato seedlings, now very tightly crammed together in their seedling box. "I have some time before the service," I thought to myself. So on the day of his funeral, there I was in my best Sunday clothes, out on the back porch, planting okra seeds and transplanting tomato seedlings...

....and later, at his service, when I looked down in sorrow with tears in my eyes, I saw that I still had dirt under my fingernails.

I think Grandpa would have been OK with that.

"We come from the earth, we return to the earth, and in between we garden."


HomeschoolHomestead said...

This is a beautiful tribute to your grandfather. You were both lucky to have each other.

fairbetty said...

This post was lovely. I'm sorry for your loss, but so happy you have found such a wonderful way to connect with your grandfather's memory and presence in your life. Thanks for sharing.