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June 27, 2022

A dad’s wisdom grows on you

Come on,

my dad would say,

let’s do some gardening.

It wasn’t a question, but a demand
– and I wasn’t exempt, no matter if I said,

Dad, I’m playing baseball.

Or football, soccer, or going sailing.
It was a chore.
I resented it.
“Come on,” my dad would say, “let’s do some gardening.” It wasn’t a question, but a demand – and I wasn’t exempt, no matter if I said, “Dad, I’m playing baseball.” Or football, soccer, or going sailing.

It was a chore.

I resented it.

It was my dad’s garden, for his enjoyment, to be shared with my mom and their friends at cocktail parties and barbecues.

In Chicago’s deep humidity, we’d sweat through our T-shirts and shorts, dad in a Chicago Symphony cap, me in my beat-up Cubs hat. My dad’s garden was a kaleidoscope of color: pink and white fuchsias hanging from above; pansies in one bed that would be replaced once they got leggy; geraniums in pots, bright red and white, with fuzzy variegated foliage that I combed with my hand for scent; foxgloves and hollyhocks towering overhead; and dozens of roses in a bed that needed constant attention. “Roses are the greediest flower of all,” dad told me. “They need sun, water, drainage, perfect soil, no clay.”

“Then why have them?” I’d ask.

He’d lean down over a perfect blossom, plant his nose, close his eyes, and inhale. Then motion for me to do the same.

I wasn’t impressed. I was disgruntled.

My father’s science background informed his gardening. We double Dutch dug the rose bed, burying three feet of pebble beneath three feet of perfectly aerated soil. We embedded metallic dividers into various areas of the main garden so fertilizers wouldn’t mix.

By the time I’d arrive at my sports game, covered from head to foot in dirt, still eager to play, my buddies would be ready for Perenti’s, the five-and-dime. We’d lope over to buy baseball cards and pop Bazooka gum in our mouths. “Your dad and his garden,” my friends would sigh.

“I’ll never have a garden,” I’d tell them. “Ever. That’s a promise.”

When I returned home, dad would call me over, “Come here. Let’s look at the fruit of our labor.” We’d rinse off peaches and lean over the kitchen sink, looking out the big window facing the garden. The peach juice would run over our faces and fingers, and we’d silently admire the flowers as they lit up in late-day light.

Years later, after my wife and I bought a house in the country, I stared out over our kitchen sink at a lawn that crept up to our stone walls. “Never,” I said.

But the walls were crying for a garden. Whispering, “Give in.”

One day, before my wife and kids were awake, I grabbed a shovel and dug up the sod, shaking worms free, the way Dad had taught me, saving them for the soil. I double Dutch dug, aerated the clay with humus, pulled out all the tricks my dad had used – and that I’d rebelled so strongly against. When my wife came downstairs, she smiled. “But no roses,” I said. “Ever.”

One garden had led to the next. When I ran out of room near our house, I fenced in an area for raised beds. Each new garden reminded me of my youth, of a deep knowledge my dad had taught me – and I felt rooted in something deep and precious. Hummingbirds whirred, bees buzzed: company. Then my kids joined me with tiny spades and mini-shovels in hand, moving soil from here to there.

I finally caved, “All right. Fine.”

I planted a rose garden.

My dad visited us not too long after on a sultry summer day. He sat in the shade of a crab apple tree, sipping lemonade. “Sorry,” he said, “I can’t garden with you.” He’d had physical problems lately.

“You can give me some tips,” I replied. I stood up, shielded my eyes from the sun, and looked at him in his chair.

“You’re a better gardener than I ever was,” he told me.

I nearly burst out in tears. “Not true,” I said in a choked voice. “Besides, you taught me everything I know.”

He absorbed that a minute, then said, “Well, why don’t you try moving that one over there.” He raised his cane and pointed to a bed.

Dad watched as I moved the plant, untangled the roots, popped it in the soil, pressed the dirt all around with my heel, picked spent blossoms and cut off struggling stems. I watered. The scent of flower and soil shot into the air.

“That’ll do just fine,” Dad said.

Later, we ate peaches together over the kitchen sink, staring out at the garden. My son joined us. The peach juice ran over our fingers and faces. We were silent and content.

James Douglas Barron is the author of “She’s Having a Baby – And I’m Having a Breakdown.”

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