By Tim Hayes
In the moderately sized backyard, shovel sliced into earth across the rear corner, off to the right. The heel of a tennis shoe-clad food pushing the blade into the ground, to reveal the black soil beneath.
Before long, a 10-by-10 foot patch had been cleared, then tilled carefully, before planting began on the first-ever Hayes Family vegetable garden. Tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and maybe one or two more crops comprised our tentative foray into urban farming.
A six-foot high picket fence promised to keep the deer away. Smaller critters like rabbits, well, we’d just have to take our chances. The real point, of course, came in giving Dad (me) some time with his kids while they were small and still happy to hang around him. And maybe we’d all learn something together about growing, living things, and how important it is to care for them well.
We dug out rows for the different vegetables, giving the tomatoes the run of the middle patch. Risking tremendous overreach and a flashing a bit of bravado, we put in Beefsteak tomatoes – the bullies of the bunch. But if they came in strong and ballooned up to their juicy, skin-stretching potential? Oh baby, we’d be the toast of our little neighborhood. So it became Beefsteak or Bust.
The kids were maybe five, three, and one years old when all of this happened. The size of the garden would not have impressed anybody at the office, but to our kids it looked like Old MacDonald’s Farm. We planted the seeds, taped the seed packets to the little wire trim fence around the edges to keep track of which row held which vegetable, watered them, pulled out weeds as they poked up, and waited for nature to start the festivities.
At the right time, the buds pierced the soil and started blooming. The Beefsteaks started crawling out from their spreading vines, turning different shades of green before taking on hints of red, while the other crops eventually came into view and started to grow under the scorching July sun.
One evening after dinner, I took our oldest out into the garden with me. She and I carried some long wooden sticks, a hammer, and some twine. The time to give the Beefsteaks some help had arrived. We’d place the sticks into the ground and tie the tomato vines to them, giving the plants room to grow vertically.
I had decided on this strategy using my (severely) limited agricultural faculties, declaring to my five-year-old assistant that this would increase our harvest while letting the tomatoes benefit from more direct sunlight. Plus, I’d seen somebody on TV do the same thing.
We worked together for more than an hour, her handing me tools and implements, holding up the tomato vines against the poles and telling me where to tie the twine around them. Our knees, hands, and faces got smudged and smeared with the loam of the garden, but we didn’t care. We did something important and great, and we had done it together.
One Beefsteak had fully ripened, we noticed. It looked plump, deep red, and ready to be enjoyed. I helped my little daughter pluck it from the vine, and it almost fell to the ground, it was so heavy for her to hold. But she got a good grip on it and smiled up at me.
I reached down, and lifted her up into my arms. As she held that tomato, and I held her, neither one of us said a word, but looked at each other for the longest time. In that moment, like so many more with all of the kids over the years, there was nowhere else in the universe I wanted to be more than where I was right then and there with my child.
The pride, the gratitude, the joy, the deep, deep love for this little person and the love and happiness she felt after spending this special time with me – all got communicated as we looked at each other that late summer evening.
She’s in her mid-20s now, building a career and doing wonderfully in another part of the country. We’ll be together again soon at the beach for a family vacation. No Beefsteaks anticipated there, other than the ones we might buy at a grocery store in that little Jersey Shore town.
But when I see her, that moment next to a makeshift backyard garden more than two decades ago will flash across my mind once more. And all is right with the world. Happy Fathers Day.
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes