I grew up in an apartment in a working class neighborhood in the city, but I was lucky enough to be exposed to vegetable gardening at a young age.
You see, my dad’s parents had friends who owned a farm just outside of Cornwall, Ontario. Uncle Fred and Aunt Chrissie as we called them, even though they were not actually family, were close to my grandparents. Their grown children had all moved away and as Fred and Chrissie got older they turned to my grandparents for help in managing the farm.
On Friday afternoons each summer from the time I was four, my grandparents would jam a gaggle of my dad’s younger sisters, along with yours truly, and enough clothes and supplies for the weekend, into their big old car and make the two-hour drive to the farm.
Sometimes my parents would come; sometimes they’d stay home by themselves. I guess it was good for them to get a break once in a while and spend some quiet time alone together as a couple. There was so much for this wide-eyed little boy to see and do, that I don’t ever remember missing them or feeling homesick the way young children sometimes do.
On the farm I’d get to ride on the tractor with my granddad. Sometimes he’d let me steer while sitting on his lap; that was really cool! And there were cows to milk, chickens to feed and horses to tend to. There was a huge corn field to play hide-and-seek in with my aunts, and there was a sizeable vegetable garden.
But to this day, the thing that I remember most from my summer weekends on the farm was how my Grandmother had set aside a small part of the garden that was all mine.
With her help and guidance I planted and grew tomatoes, carrots, beets, beans, cabbage, turnip, potatoes, and cucumbers, and it was entirely my responsibility to take care of it.
All that this amounted to really was weeding and watering, but I was determined to do it right.
I remember looking forward to getting there every Friday evening, hopefully before sundown, so I could run out to my garden to see how much it had grown since the previous Sunday.
I’d marvel at how the little seeds I had put into the ground turned into plants and grew. Plants that produced food!
I became pretty good at remembering what I had planted where, and I learned to recognize the good plants from the weeds.
As summer progressed I’d get such a feeling of pride from bringing fresh vegetables home to my parents in the city. It was truly a magical time for me.
My grandfather passed away when I was seven and we stopped going to the farm. Not long after, Uncle Fred and Aunt Chrissie sold and moved into a retirement home. For me this meant summers were spent in the city without any land or a back yard. My gardening days were over.
But I never forgot the feeling that came with growing my own food and I vowed that one day if I ever got the chance, I’d do it again.
Many years later when my wife and I were looking for our first house, we made a list of things we were looking for; two or three bedrooms, a large kitchen, a garage, and maybe a pool. But the one that she found puzzling was my insistence on a big back yard.
Big enough for a garden.
She was understandably skeptical. She’d known me for a decade and up to then had never seen me so much as water a house plant. Me, the white collar office guy wanting a garden? But when I told her the story of my childhood weekends on the farm she understood.
It has been ten years since we moved into our home with the big back yard and I have kept that promise to my younger self every summer since.
Our garden keeps us fed with a wide variety of fresh vegetables all summer long and despite what many think, it really isn’t that much work. At the beginning of the season we turn the soil and add some compost, but once everything is planted the rest is the same as when I was four; weeding and watering.
We planted this year’s crop on the weekend. As I do every year while planting I paused with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat and looked skyward with gratitude; thinking about my dear departed Grandma.
I’m sure that back then for her it was just a way to keep a little boy busy, out of trouble and out of everyone’s hair while they worked. But whether she realized it or not what she gave me was a gift that I will treasure forever.
Today just as the four-year-old me did back then, I look forward to checking out the garden each evening to see how much it grew that day. And I’m quite certain that every time I do, a very special lady looks down on me from above and smiles.