Sometime around noon on a late-winter day, as the sun's steepening angle chased the chill from the ground, I bent to the dirt near the turkey pen out back. Up sprouted neat rows of thick and sturdy garlic shoots. The 2016 crop was beginning to claim its place, its greenery forming the first sign of many harvests ahead. I snipped off an inch-long piece and slipped it into my mouth, like a stick of chewing gum, and let the powerful rush of flavor carry with it a sense of pre-spring satisfaction.
I have a demanding, complicated job and a large, busy family, which together can occupy almost all of my attention. But the garlic and the garden that produced those fresh shoots serve as an anchor—the result of a set of carefully nurtured places and disciplined habits that connect us to cycles as timeless and essential as any other aspect of our bustling lives. These delicacies and the sentiments that come with them are not serendipity. They are heirlooms passed down from my father.
James Chivers is now seventy-seven years old—an age that, after a heart attack and a bout with cancer, we can objectively say he looks but does not act. He's a competitive swimmer and still a practicing lawyer. Recently he became a widower after years of caring for his wife of over half a century, my mother, who passed away in 2015 after an unrelenting illness drained her of alertness and vigor. Throughout it all he has always kept busy. He is a driven man, a workaholic, someone who loathes sitting still and is unwilling, perhaps unable, to allow the mind to drift. He majored in mathematics in college, became a flight officer in a U.S. Navy A-1 squadron early in the Vietnam War, and then came home and attended law school, ultimately buckling down for life in a small city in upstate New York. In my youth his preparation for trials was the stuff of household awe. He would research his cases and concentrate on them with an intensity that my mother described as similar to watching a captain depart on a submarine.
And you should have seen the gardens.
For as long as I can remember my father always kept fruit and vegetable gardens, sometimes of remarkable ambition, complexity, and size. This started, as near as he can remember, at age four or five, when he helped an uncle with a sprawling garden in a spare lot outside Pittsburgh, where he was raised and where his family, as he told me on a recent night, grew what everyone grows: tomatoes, beans, squash, and all that. After returning from Vietnam and starting a family, his replication of this effort claimed space in multiple plots—behind his house, behind his mother-in-law's house, behind a cottage in the Finger Lakes, and, for a few years, on a scrubby hill on a friend's farm, where he relied upon a bolt-action .410 shotgun to thin the rabbit horde that approved of his work-mandated periods of absenteeism, and was never quite deterred.
Dad grew, to borrow his wildly inaccurate phrase, what everyone grows. But he branched out. Melons became his specialty. In the 1970s, through study and trial and error, he mastered the art of raising northern muskmelons. Because seasons in his zone start cold and open late, this melon-growing zag required a canny mix of dreaming, planning, and studying, something that he approached like a legal case. The plants needed cold frames for spring, and the soil needed to be warmed by plastic for early summer, and then came dutiful protection from a particular species of beetle, which he was known to pursue by hand. After a few summers he had mastered the challenge, and his children, coworkers, and neighbors were all rich in cantaloupes come August, at least for a week. He also attracted one thief, a neighbor our dogs flushed from one of the plots one day. She appeared from the bushes with a large melon in each hand, huffing, chagrined, and busted.
Today my father still keeps a garden, though much smaller than before, and he has gradually drifted to planting and tending fruit trees. He can spend hours among them, telling the harvests and frustrations of each. This new project has locked him in a perpetual, low-grade war with a particularly nimble woodchuck population, which nibbles at the tree bark and has learned to climb to steal, the four-legged thieves replacing our two-legged, melon-lifting bandit of yesteryear, and proving impossible to shame.
Those big, busy gardens have passed to me and my own household. They form a set of places and a pastime where we can put our cluttered minds, feel grateful for simple pleasures and straightforward rewards, and carry on. Garlic, potatoes, onions, and basils are among our specialties, a sometimes fickle but usually reliable yield that fills the pickup bed each summer and makes us many friends. Melons, I expect, we'll get to with time.
We're blessed that he showed us the way.
*This story origionally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Seniorhelpline.