The spring sun shines brightly on this 1970s morning. The roosters’ crows echo in the air as I go row by row, dropping pink kernels in the ground. In a few month’s time, it will yield tall stalks laden with “Silver Queen” corn.
It’s May in southern West Virginia. A time for planting. And I am my grandfather’s best helper.
In previous days, we’ve dug holes for potatoes, planted green beans, and laced the ground under a latticework board with handfuls of cucumber seeds.
In the semi-basement — half below ground and half above — young, tender beefsteak tomato plants are stretching toward the light. Soon, they and pepper plants will go into the ground outside.
Clad in a T-shirt, bibbed-overalls and dirty sneakers, I follow my grandfather around like a mongrel dog in need of a home.
Ever in touch with nature, he shares with me old wives’ tales about planting, folklore and scientific facts. His gardens never disappoint, and I am thrilled to be part of the spring planting process.
• • •
It’s early in the a.m. and I dart out the back door without breakfast or a by-your-leave. I am wearing shoes — a testament to a recent scolding by Mom and Grandma.
I would much prefer to be barefoot, feeling the dew-heavy grass between my toes. The elder ladies in my family, however, are concerned about snakes, spiders and other critters. As young as age 5, I know that my calloused, country girl feet can take a bite with no problem. But, tired of the lectures, I roll my eyes and pull on the Keds.
It’s gardening time, and there are more important things to worry about.
• • •
The smell of grease and wilted lettuce hangs heavy in the air. The garden’s first bounty is coming in, and the night’s dinner table will feature its produce as the star. On the side will be huge chunks of crispy bacon.
No one questions calorie counts or carbohydrate levels. We dust our plates with an ample seasoning of salt and dig in.
This is a late spring dinner in southern West Virginia.
• • •
More than a decade after our early planting years, I am riding with Grandpa on a trip to Bluefield. I may be a busy college student, but I still find time to spend with my family.
Driving up Lorton Lick Road, I spy a gigantic yellow flower in a well-manicured yard. Mesmerized, I ask about the beautiful, humongous bloom.
My grandfather tells me it’s a dinnerplant dahlia, an “old-timey” flower that can grow to large dimensions the size of a …. well, dinnerplate.
I am in awe.
• • •
When spring rolls around the following year, my grandfather, once again, has his tomatoes, “cukes” and other veggies ready to go into the ground. But there is one unexpected surprise.
He hands me a bag filled with tan-colored tubers — the beginnings of dahlias, ready to be planted.
We till out a spot in full sun on the right side of the house. Weeks after planting, the tubers yield vibrant green sprouts. Soon, the dahlias take off in full force, chasing the sun as stalks burst from the ground.
Sadly, as the gardens grow, life inside the house is not so vibrant and happy. My grandfather is having “spells” of dizziness and moments when he is incoherent. Finally, after weeks of nagging, sees a doctor. The diagnosis is grim — lung cancer that has spread to the brain.
I cry rivers of tears, but, mindful of my lessons growing up, I still tend to my dahlias.
• • •
We work the gardens when he becomes too weak to stand. Pails filled with peppers, green beans, tomatoes and corn are a testament to Grandpa’s green thumb and loving touch. The pantry is stocked from his spring labors.
Meanwhile, in a bed upstairs, he becomes sicker, and weaker. We take turns sitting by his side, telling him about his garden, and the tasty vegetables filling our plates.
For a time he is coherent, smiling at our words. And then he is not.
• • •
When the dahlias come in to bloom, I gently clip the stalks and carefully arrange the giant flowers in a vase. Walking upstairs, I put them in a place of honor on Grandpa’s nightstand. At this point the cancer is raging, but I swear I see a light in his eyes.
I keep the vase filled throughout the ensuing weeks. It’s a bond we share.
Weeks after the last bloom’s wilt, we lose him.
• • •
It’s decades after my freckled-face nose has followed my grandpa around in the garden. But, standing on the back porch, I can still see him — dropping seeds and pulling weeds.
It’s time, I think, for a new garden. One that not only nurtures new growth, but revives the spirit of great ones from the past.
Samantha Perry is editor of The Bluefield (W.Va.) Daily Telegraph, a CNHI newspaper. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.