By Beth Alexander Reiss
My most vivid childhood memories are outdoors: Springtime smells call me back to Newton County, Mississippi. Freshly cut grass, azaleas and dogwoods blooming in the front yard, and freshly turned earth in the back. Sometimes, the dirt looked as black and rich as chocolate cake. Other times, as red and hard as the scratches my sisters and brother and I were covered in from playing in the woods — our clothes and skin catching on vines, sand burrs, and every other thorny, evil thing that grew in our backyard and the surrounding 60 acres.
Papaw kept a massive garden when I was a child. Every spring, he’d get out the tractor for the big plot and turn over the soil. I’d ride along for a little while, only to get down and run through the dirt as the sun began to warm the cold sod. My Mama would fuss and bleach the bottoms of my feet — but I always did it again. As I got older, Papaw let me run the tiller he used for the small plots. He’d crank it for me, and then I’d walk the rotary blades forward, drawing long rows in the garden. I’d be freckled the rest of the summer and my body buzzed for hours from the vibrations of the tiller.
For planting, we used an old tomato stake or hoe handle to push holes in the dirt and drop in seeds, gently tapping the dirt back over it and moving on to the next mound. There were tomatoes and rows upon rows of snap beans, butter beans, okra, and anything else you’d want for Sunday lunch.
At some point, maybe when I was 8 or 9, I asked for my own plants and helped tend the squash. I watched as the plants bloomed and grew, and soon there was a little crookneck ready to be picked. I was so proud of that vegetable. I took it inside and put it in the refrigerator, hoping it would keep longer. When my Mama wanted to cook it, I wouldn't let her. My pride in that sunshine yellow squash kept me from eating it, and it ruined before I got to enjoy it.
We lost Papaw last March at 83 years old. Battling Parkinson’s disease, he’d years ago stopped gardening. But my brother, William, continues to plant yearly and uses Papaw’s tractor and tiller. We imagine the motor is about 40 years old, although it’s mounted now on a new rototiller body. It has rust red handles and a canary yellow mount. It purrs. It’s a piece of farm equipment — but it’s also a relic. One of Papaw’s possessions. A tangible memorial now that he’s gone.
Usually, relics are the possessions of saints. A saint, Papaw was not. He was inclined to gamble and stay out too late, worrying the family. But he had good qualities. When we had too much, it didn’t go to waste: He shared with our neighbors.
My grandmother would freeze or preserve produce. I’d sit with her, a tin pan on my knees, filling it with peas. She once taught me to make my own butter, using a little jar that I shook and shook until I thought my arm would fall off, and the smoothest, white butter formed inside.
Over the years, Papaw farmed, raised cattle and horses, and trained and sold hunting dogs. He enjoyed fishing and hunting. In his later years, he carefully tended his flowers. Yellow roses were his favorite. He often cut them and walked them next door for my Mama to put in the kitchen window.
One Sunday in April, William loaded up the tiller and drove it the 70 miles from Little Rock, Mississippi, to my home in Brandon. "This is probably the farthest it's ever been from home," William noted. I wondered what the tiller thought about the journey.
William plowed a vegetable garden in my little suburban backyard. We raked out the grass, picking up sticks and roots and tossing them to the dog.
"When you plant the tomatoes, dig the hole, then put a handful of 10-10-10 fertilizer in and then put more dirt on top of that.” William tells me that’s his go-to for Better Boy tomatoes. My husband agrees, “They were as big as grapefruit last year.”
At 12 feet by 6 feet, my garden is just big enough to grow squash, zucchini, tomatoes, and snap beans for me and my husband and maybe have some to share. The garden will produce only for a little while, and the food will go bad if it’s not used. The tiller will rust and fall into disrepair.
But some things stand the test of time. There will be other gardens, and more Papaws will teach their grandchildren how to take care of themselves when they're no longer here.