My Father’s Last Garden
The Seeds a Good Father Plants in His Children Bloom Long After He’s Gone
The weekend before Father’s Day in 2019, my brother and I gathered at the old homestead where our folks still lived to help our eighty-six-year-old father with the annual ritual of planting his beloved vegetable garden.
Call it an early Father’s Day present. Call it a nostalgic bid to glean a few more gardening tips from a man who had taught us so much. Call it a final farewell to a tradition that had fed us in more ways than one.
It was all these things. Life rarely gives us a chance to choreograph an ending; usually, it just cuts the tie and leaves you holding the string. But this ending was as certain as a sunset. Our father had been slipping away from us for five years. He’d done his therapy, taken his pills, made a valiant effort to regain the use of his left side that he’d lost in the stroke, but his body wasn’t coming back, and neither was his spirit. He spent half the day sleeping and the other half on his recliner in the family room staring at the television. He was eating less, growing more forgetful, repeating things more frequently.
The end was coming. We didn’t know the day or time, but we knew it would be soon. Meanwhile, it was a beautiful spring day and he was just sitting there on his chair watching our Phillies lose another ballgame. We knew how much he loved his garden. He hadn’t missed planting one for the fifty-four years we’d lived at our little six-acre farm. That garden had nourished us, and him, through many lean years when money was tight and all we had to get us through the winter were the frozen bags of vegetables pulled from the frosty depths of the basement freezer.
Why not see if we could get him out there to plant one last garden? He could use some fresh air, and our mother could use a break from caring for him every minute in the house.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said when Bill and I stood before him in the family room and told him our plan. “This left leg of mine doesn’t work very well anymore.”
“Take your cane. We’ll help you, Dad.”
He looked hesitant, even a bit frightened. The month before, he had fallen into the window well along the side of the house while walking from the front porch to the side door. If it hadn’t been for our mother hearing him calling, he might have been stuck there for hours.
“We’ll have to get some tomato seedlings from the greenhouse …”
“We already bought a flat.”
Oh? he asked, suddenly interested. What kind?
Supersonics, Early Girls, and grape tomatoes, we told him. His favorites.
“What about string beans?”
Yes, we had packets of both green and yellow bean seeds, we said.
He hemmed and hawed. Our mother chimed in.
“Go, Forrie,” she said—calling him, as most people did, by his middle name Forrest. “It’s a nice day. Go out with your sons.”
In the old days, there’d be no need to talk our father into going outside. From April through November, he was in his garden every minute he wasn’t at the office, and every minute he was at the office was, in his mind, keeping him from his garden. Even in the winter months, he was preparing for the upcoming growing season: clearing the field of stakes and cages; spreading manure; checking Ph levels; plotting crops and ordering seeds. Receiving the Burpee catalog in the mail in January brought him the same excitement that getting the Sears Wish Book did for us kids at Christmas. He’d sit in the kitchen poring through it, dreaming of new seeds he’d try and how many packets he’d need.
You can tell where a man’s heart lies by his eyes. Do they radiate back the object of his love, or are they dead as the filaments of a burned-out bulb?
For me and my siblings, there was never any question where our father’s heart lay, and it wasn’t in his job. A job was a way to afford the things he wanted, and what he wanted was pretty simple: a family, some land, and the time and equipment to fiddle around on that land. We saw his eyes go dead on Monday mornings as he readied for another week of work, and then come alive again when he walked in the door at night. His eyes were alive when he took us hunting or fishing or on family vacations to the Poconos. His eyes were alive when he took us tent camping to God’s Country in Potter County where the night sky was so big and black, you felt you were floating in it.
“It doesn’t get any better than this, boys!” he say brightly as we sat around the campfire at night poking the logs and shooting up more stars to fill that sky.
The outdoors was in his blood, as it was ours. He’d grown up on a fifty-acre dairy farm and was always telling us stories of having to get up at four-thirty in the morning to milk the cows before school. To help his family during the lean war years, he raised ducks for sale. He told a story of being visited one day by a Jewish man asking if the meat he was buying had been butchered Kosher-style. My father had no idea what he meant and lost the sale.
He never was much a businessman. Given his druthers, he would have chosen farming as a career instead of electrical engineering, but he was smart enough to see the writing on the wall. With the rise of mechanization and mass production in America after the war, the family farm was going the way of the dodo bird. There was no way he’d be able to support a family milking cows. Farming would have to be something he did on the side.
Early on in his career, that calculus played out okay. He married his high school sweetheart and got a job as a quality control manager at the Philco-Ford electronics plant in town, which gave him the funds to buy a hundred-year-old farmhouse on a six-acre property not far from the farm where he grew up. Meanwhile, the kids were coming like clockwork. My mother was Catholic whereas my father was not religious in the least, and I think he stood in awe of the way these Catholic girls popped out children like the best of heifers. Soon there were five of us running around with our mouths open.
At first, it was manageable. He was making decent money at the plant and even had a company car. But unbeknownst to him, the sands of his chosen career were shifting beneath him. This was in the early days of transistors, those tiny brains that now power everything in our computer-driven world. Ford had bought Philco as part of an ill-fated bid to diversify into consumer products. When the semiconductor industry shifted west to the Silicon Valley, the automaker found itself on the wrong side of the tracks and decided to shutter money-losing operations. The plant where Dad worked was one of them.
And so, after eighteen years on the job, he was laid off—“thrown away,” was how he phrased it as he went about the house roaring his displeasure. He’d expected to retire from that company, and now suddenly he was out of work in a crappy economy where good engineering jobs were hard to come by. Further complicating things, it was about this time that, after a six-year lull in churning out the babies, my thirty-nine-year-old mother announced that Oh, by the way, Forrie—I’m pregnant.
Fun times. No job, no benefits, with five kids and a sixth in the oven. To make ends meet, our father got his realtor’s license and started peddling houses on the side. Eventually, he was able to find another job, but he’d learned his lesson. He would never again put his faith in a company. For the next twenty-five years, he worked a series of unfulfilling jobs until he retired, at which point his eyes shone every day. When I stopped by the homestead on hot summer days, I’d invariably find him out in his garden with his straw hat and long sleeve-shirt to keep the sun off his face and arms. “James!” he’d call to me brightly, and proceed to show me how the crops were coming along.
Then came the stroke and his eyes went flat again and hadn’t come fully back to life since. But as he stepped out of the house that bright Saturday afternoon, I saw those gold-green eyes flicker like the last lumens of a dying camping lantern.
“It’s a handsome day!” he said, a favorite expression. Days were either handsome or yucky; there was no in-between. “Hope the ground is dry enough to plant.”
It was. After a wet spring, the weather had warmed up and dried things out.
“Do we have tomato plants?”
His memory retention was down to seconds. Yes, Dad, we told him again, showing him the flat of eighteen seedlings. Now, eighteen tomato plants is a lot of seedlings, but it was nothing compared to the fifty or so he used to plant in the old days. When it came to vegetables, he went big.
“Where are the tomato cages? Anyone remember where we put them away last year?”
We fetched the homemade cages from amongst the weeds in the horse pen, where once our horse Lucky had run free. The horse was long gone, the pasture fence was falling apart, everything was falling apart, and our father didn’t care anymore, which was the surest sign he didn’t have long.
“See if you can get the rototiller fired up, James! Don’t forget to turn on the gas!”
Our Troy-Bilt tiller was ancient and tended to leak gas. Dad was meticulous about turning off the fuel on it and all the equipment in between uses, for fear an errant spark would blow up the shed and everything in it. Lately, his tendency toward fastidiousness had shifted to securing the house against intruders. Every door was double-locked and rigged with brooms, umbrellas, and other found objects so robbers would make a commotion as they tried to break in while he slept upstairs. Not that he would hear them—he took out his hearing aids before bed and couldn’t hear a bomb go off without them. But it made him feel better, and making him feel better was what mattered at this stage of the game.
I got the tiller running and worked the ground to a fine crumble. Our nephew Greg had joined us, and he helped his uncles mark the rows, drive stakes at either end, and tie a taut string between them. Dad stood to the side, supervising—
“Make sure to hill the ground under the string.”
“Lay the soaker hose on the high side of the hill—so the water will trickle down to the plants.”
“Don’t forget to lay black plastic or we’ll have more weeds than we know what to do with!”
No use telling him we knew all this already. In our household, an education in gardening started at the same time as learning to tie our shoes. My brothers and I learned early on how to drive a tractor and work a three-point hitch; how to how to hill corn stalks to give them support as they grew; how to puddle tomato seedlings and lay them on the side so they grew strong as they bent toward the sun. We knew about acidity and alkalinity and the importance of lime to balanced soil. From our engineer father we learned that there was a prescribed science to creating a good garden, and it started with the dirt. You can tell good dirt when you see it. It’s dark and loamy so that when you take a clump into your hand and squeeze, it crumbles like a cookie. Bad soil cakes together because it has too much clay—you might as well stick that seedling into concrete and expect it to grow. This soil we were working today had benefited from fifty years of manure, fertilizer and lime. In gardening, as in life, preparation was all.
“We need a bucket of water and a cup.”
Greg went off to fetch the remaining supplies. When the bed was ready, we cut out a circle in the plastic and dug a hole in the exposed soil. Into the hole went a sprinkle of fertilizer and a cup of water. Gently extracting a tomato seedling from the flat, we broke up the root and sank it into the puddled soil. The wire cage went over top like a suit of armor.
“Beautiful! Do we have any grape tomato plants? Your mother loves grape tomatoes in her salads.”
We worked on, production-line style, sinking a new seedling every foot and a half. It really was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm and full of hope. It was a day when we could almost forget that our father was a shell of the man he’d been before the stroke. Even he seemed to have forgotten his troubles. His cane had been left on the grass and he was happily helping us with any part of the job that didn’t require too much strength. This is what being out in his garden had always done for him. My father was not a spiritual man, but he knew the meditative power of nature, the way it gets you out of your head and into the moment. Dig hole. Drop in seed. Cover with soil. Water. Pull weeds. It was a recipe for happiness that a monk could love.
After the tomatoes were in, we planted a row each of yellow and green beans. And that was it—the contents of our father’s last garden. No long, neatly groomed rows of sweet corn. No creeping patches of squash and cantaloupe, or lush rows of Detroit Dark Reds and Danvers Half-Longs, or trellised rows of cucumbers laced with baling string from the barn. After fifty-three years of planting, we were down to the two essentials without which a garden could not be called a garden.
“This was a good day,” Dad said as he limped back toward the house.
We’d succeeded in getting him outside, but now he was weary. This man who used to work outside from sunrise to sunset on weekends, who was intent on squeezing every minute of light from the day like milk from an udder, now could only last an hour.
Back in the living room, he plopped down on his chair in front of the television. The Phillies had lost. Death and taxes weren’t the only two certainties of life.
One of my earliest memories growing up was seeing my father out in the side yard turning over spades of earth for what would become his first vegetable garden.
I was six at the time and we had just moved to our home in northern Montgomery County. Today, the area is a hub-bub of traffic lights and four-lane highways, but back then, in the mid-1960s, we were out in the middle of nowhere, a frontier family on the outer edge of suburbanization, and there was our frontiersman father working to tame this land he’d just acquired.
He was not a huge man—he stood maybe five-foot-ten in boots—but he was athletic and wiry, a star soccer player in high school, and as I watched him drive the shovel into the ground, flipping over clumps of sod and tossing away rocks, he looked to me like Paul Bunyan carving a home out of the wilderness. Into that room-sized patch of turned earth went a wheelbarrow full of manure along with a dusting of lime and fertilizer, followed by three tomato plants, a couple rows of string beans, and a pepper plant, along with a few sunflower seeds to make the whole thing pretty for my mother.
That first garden produced a smattering of fresh vegetables for the table. But Dad had not bought these six acres to settle for a postage-stamp vegetable plot. He had big plans for his garden. The second year, he doubled the plot and bought the Troy-Bilt, which aided greatly in the preparation.
Every year thereafter his garden grew, as did his stable of implements. My father was always going to auctions and scanning classifieds for used pieces of equipment he could get cheap. Another farmer’s trash was his treasure. Our first tractor was a hand-cranked Allis-Charmers that must have been obsolete when it came off the line around the first World War. Watching Dad trying to start it was like witnessing an Old Testament battle of Man vs. Beelzebub—the tractor sputtering and backfiring, the crank bar kicking back and swinging perilously at his cheek as he cussed at it—“You sonofabitch!
After a few years, he grew tired of fighting with the beast and got his hands on a Ford NAA (aka Jubilee) model tractor made in the early 1950s. We were always at least a generation behind the rest of the world in keeping up with the Industrial Revolution, but at least the Ford had an electric starter and power-take off. It also started—much of the time, at least. Along with the tractor, he picked up a two-bottom plow, a two-row corn planter, a disk and a cultivator.
That’s when the serious gardening started. He plowed under a half-acre of the hayfield and added a bunch of new crops from the Burpee catalog. Our father loved experimenting with different varieties of vegetables, even those he didn’t care to eat himself. He grew every type of tomato known to man: beefsteaks, early girls, cherries, sauce tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, low-acid tomatoes. He grew early crops and late crops. He grew root crops, cruciferous vegetables, cucumbers and squash, melons, bush beans (yum) and lima beans (yuck).
We all had our favorites, but everyone’s favorite—the gold of our garden—was the sweet corn. We grew a variety of white corn called Silver Queen, which produced ears so sweet you could eat them raw if you were so inclined. We started with a few rows for the table. Then the neighbors got a taste of the corn at cookouts and started asking if they could buy a dozen. My enterprising father, seeing an opportunity, plowed under the rest of the hayfield and began selling corn by the dozen along the side of the road. People would come from miles around for our farm-fresh corn and vegetables.
The roadside stand never made much money, but every dollar counted in our household. My mother tells stories of having twenty-five bucks in her pocket to get us through the upcoming week. The garden was the link between making it or not making it. From June through November, she was out there picking the rows clean and bringing in baskets of the bounty. What didn’t go to the table or the farm stand went into the pot for canning and freezing. By November the basement freezer was stocked with bags of cut corn, beans, and tomatoes to take us through the long winter months ahead.
Sounds idyllic, and it was, but it was also a lot of work, and we kids were labor for the operation. That’s why farmers have kids, right? Our parents couldn’t afford to pay us an allowance, and we didn’t ask for one. If you wanted to eat, you got out there and pulled weeds, and there were a lot of weeds in the garden since our father was strictly an organic farmer and used no herbicides or pesticides.
I am now a divorced father of three sturdy sons, and when I tell them that I used to spend my summers as a youth shoveling manure and pulling weeds—for nothing—I see their eyebrows go up. How did you get spending money?
Well, I had a paper route as well, I say. In those days, you see, we read actual newspapers—as in newspapers.
They shake their heads. I’m a relic.
But a life like that toughens you up. There was always drama. Always stress.
Like the time right after my father lost his job and we didn’t have medical benefits, so he sat us down and told us to be extra careful in the days ahead and for God’s sake, Don’t get hurt! The next day, my younger brother fell off his bike and broke his arm.
Or the epic battles with the equipment. There they stood, an entire army corps of machines and implements lined up at the ready behind the barn, but invariably when we went to use one of them, something or other was broken, and being that Dad was always pressed for time, this didn’t go over too well. His impatience was legendary, and it spared nothing and no one. Machines, traffic, inconsiderate people, medical appointments, work itself: they were all obstacles in his way—
“You sonofabitch! I have forty-five minutes before it gets dark and you’re going to quit on me?”
Now that I’m older, I get it. I find myself talking to inanimate objects all the time, using choice words like he did. But back then, it drove me crazy. It’s not alive, Dad, I remember thinking more times than I can count. It’s a tractor!
And then there were the battles with Enemy Number One of our father’s garden.
As the years went by and development encroached all around us, our little six-acre farm became an oasis for deer, rabbits, groundhogs, crows, foxes, and all other manner of wildlife. In the view of these critters, the garden had been put there as their personal feeding ground.
The deer and crows were the most brazen. Just as the tiny sprouts of corn and string beans were pushing up from the ground, they’d swoop in to nip off entire rows. My father did not take kindly to others stealing that which was rightfully his, and he put his engineering skills to good use in securing the garden. His methods became increasingly elaborate over the years. When the critters grew wise to tins tied to stakes and scarecrows dressed in farmer clothes, he sunk a mailbox in the middle of the garden and rigged up a motion detector to an AM radio tuned to a country music station. Whenever a deer wandered by, the radio would blare out scratchy strains of Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys.
Apparently, deer don’t mind country music nearly as much as I do because they kept coming for dinner. Eventually, Dad took the drastic step of fencing in the entire section of tomatoes, beans, and other tender vegetables. Even that did not stop the groundhogs from digging under the fence. For them, he would bring out his trusty Havahart live trap, baited with sliced apples dipped in peanut butter.
I would like to say he dealt gently with offenders when he caught them, that he took that cute, farm-fattened groundhog to the park and let it go. But I’d be lying. Any groundhog that dared to steal the fruit of his garden would face the open end of his .22 rifle. In his mind, the choice was simple: feed the critters or feed his kids.
Within a couple weeks of planting his final garden, Dad was in the hospital for the first of a series of age-related medical issues having to with his prostate.
A prostrate serves a vital purpose—none of us would be here if it weren’t for that walnut-sized gland squeezing sperm through a man’s urethra—but boy, can it cause problems for a guy as he gets older. Bigger and bigger it grows, until it stops up the flow of urine like a stopper in a toilet tank. When that happens, a man is in a world of hurt.
That’s what happened with my father. Twinges of discomfort led to abdominal pain, which led to a trip to the emergency room. After a bunch of tests, he was given more pills to add to his already overflowing pill box and sent home.
A couple weeks later, with the meds not working to shrink his prostate, he was back in the emergency room to be fitted with a catheter.
Question: How does Paul Bunyan get out to his garden to tend to his tomatoes when he’s tethered to a catheter bag?
Answer: He doesn’t. He sits in his chair muttering at the television until the bag next needs to be emptied.
Until the catheter gets infected and there’s blood in the bag and his alarmed children call an ambulance. Now, it’s important to note that my father always hated doctors and hospitals. Not just disliked, but hated. To get checked into the hospital was, for him, equivalent to a jail sentence. He’d do anything to avoid it, even if he’s screaming in pain and has his entire family as well as a team of puzzled EMTs trying to get him into the damn ambulance.
But finally, with no other choice, the great Paul Bunyan submits and he’s back in jail, this time for an entire week as the hospital crew try to figure out how to help him.
So it goes for the next two months. Check in. Check out. Check in. Check out.
Meanwhile, out in his garden, the weeds and critters are taking over. Even with black plastic, a garden needs weeding, and the master gardener is nowhere to be found. The crows and groundhogs are picking at the string beans, having a feast.
Hey, where’s that guy who used to play that awful music to try to scare us away?
We hear he’s in the hospital, man.
Woot-woot! Party time!
My brothers and I did our best to maintain the garden that summer, but there we had our own lives, after all. Plus, we were spending lots of time in the hospital sitting with our father, who, with every stay, grew frailer, more disoriented, more discouraged.
“This end-of-life stuff is for the birds,” he said to me one hot August day when he was home in between hospital visits.
Yes, for the birds. You can shoot a nuisance groundhog, but you can’t shoot a dying old man who’s lost his will to live. We watched him, sat with him, tried to cheer him up, all the while wondering which trip to the hospital would be his last.
I was recently chatting with my youngest son on the phone when, out of the blue, he referred to me as a “vanilla Dad.”
Vanilla? I said. Am I that boring?
No, he replied. Being a vanilla Dad was a good thing. It meant I was predictable. I was dependable. Vanilla is like salt: it’s an essential flavoring. Things don’t taste good without it. Plus, he reminded me, vanilla was my favorite ice cream flavor.
It’s true. It was always a bit of a joke when my boys and I would be out on one of our camping trips and would stop for ice cream at our favorite dairy farm: Dad’s going to get French vanilla.
Hearing this from him made me feel better. After the divorce with their mother, I’d always worried that I messed things up for them, that their lives would never be normal. I wanted normal for them. I wanted to recreate the wonderful nuclear-family life I had growing up at the old farm.
Then my son went on—
“My friends tell me I’m turning into you,” he laughed.
What did you mean? I asked.
Then he went on to list all the ways. We both love the wide-open spaces.
We both have the same middle-of-the-road political values.
We both like to put on classical music on weekend mornings when we wake up.
We’re both horribly impatient, especially when driving in traffic.
“Plus, we say the same things,” he said.
Dad-isms, my boys refer to them. My son went through a few of them: “It helps if you cuss at it!” “C’mon, Nellie—I don’t have all day!” “What are you waiting for—a written invitation?’
It struck me that every one of those expressions had come from my father. Good and bad, he’d passed all of them down. And I had as well.
Then I started thinking about all the things I remember about my father. How he was always there at all our Little League games, sacraments, graduations, and awards ceremonies.
How he sat with us helping us fill out our taxes, letting us do the work so we remembered.
How he helped us apply for financial aid and scholarship money so we could get through college with minimal debt.
How he showed us how to start a fire and read a compass.
The careful way he drove when he had people in the car, and how his hand would go out like a toll arm when he suddenly he had to slow down, to protect whoever was sitting in the passenger’s side.
The way he would drop each individual bean seed into the ground and cover it gently with soil as if putting a blanket over his child in bed.
Mostly, what I remember is the way he kept going through all the crap that happened to him. The career disappointments. The job losses and job searches. The money worries. Yes, he would rage like King Lear, but each of those blows had a way of firming his resolve.
“Never give up!” he used to say to me when I was going through the many rough patches of my life: the accidents, the injuries, the marital difficulties, the depressions that would grip my sensitive nervous system like a black beast. “We Kerrs are made of tough stuff.”
Life was hard, but tough people keep going. They don’t give up until the end.
These were the seeds he planted within his children. We were his garden.
In the end, it was another stroke that felled this old farmer. It robbed him of his ability to eat and he spent a week wasting away in a hospice bed, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
We buried him in a Catholic cemetery, in west-facing plot on a hill with plenty of sun and a view of open fields. I like to think of him now, lying there in that sunny plot on the hill, as a seed awaiting the right warm spring day to send up its sprouts and begin his rebirth.
By James Brian Kerr