The grass has finally reclaimed it. Just part of the field now, one can barely envision the huge vegetable garden that flourished here. Shrinking, year by year, as the family grew up. It seems like she was just out there, rototilling. It’s been a few years. I remember.
It was the size of a schoolyard basketball court, in my earliest memories. Mom had worked it for years before I came along. The hard way. The antique implements in the photo are the real deal, she had used them herself. The tiller shows true Buxton character with mismatched handles, and hints of red paint. Ingenious design, it’s got a little flip rigging, plow on one side and tillers on the other. I tried it today, the lock nut loosened right up by hand and the mechanism still flips. Not bad, for the age of it, probably pushing 100 years. It’s true. They don’t make anything like they used to.
She had a gas powered rototiller when my memory starts, but spent more time wielding a hoe. The kindly neighbor would be over with his tractor when the spring rains and melt had settled in. He’d turn it over with the big bottom plow, if it was dry enough. If the tractor sunk in, he’d wait a week, and try again. My brothers and I would gather around and follow as close as we dared, plucking worms and grubs from the dark brown earth. It was fishing season too. The bait shop was open.
I can smell that soil, it was the richest around, in that old garden plot. Turned and tilled for so many generations, it was easy digging with hardly any rocks. Unusual for Buxton, where rocks and stones are prevalent. If you’ve done any digging around here your round pointed shovel will show the abuse, right where the pointed part used to be.
Old Fred would come back in a few days with the harrow, and smooth the big burly rolls of sod. We’d stay out of the way this time, not disturbing the neat order of combed out rows. The harrow was hard on worms, and we already had a stash somewhere. We’d never use them all, and a few weeks later they would start to stink, in a way that only old dead worms can. Our little fishing gear worm box would always carry a hint of that horrible reminder. Clean me out when you’re done fishing.
Dad would come into play for his single annual garden duty. Take the old dump trailer to Bill’s farm, down over the hill, and get a good load of cow manure. Not new, or too old, just right. He wouldn’t screw it up, it wasn’t a job he wanted to do twice. He’d never complain, service with a smile. He’d bring his worst shovel, and get a big splinter from the splitting gray handle. She’d tweeze it out, and make him holler. It would get infected, and bother him for weeks. Routine. It wasn’t a chore he looked forward to.
She’d spread the manure around, just where she wanted it, and till it in. We’d laugh and joke about the stink, but I actually don’t mind the smell of cow manure. A few more days of drying, with no rain, and she’d plant.
Never before Memorial Day, even in nice weather. Pushing your luck, with too much to lose.
From that day forward, we were only allowed in the garden under Mom’s direct supervision. No exceptions. It was a good policy. We were all more geared to go karts. She would do best with us one on one. Teaching. So many rules, for a successful garden.
Old Bud from the junkyard had a lot of great sayings. Bits of wisdom that ring true. This one makes a lot of sense, concerning child labor:
One boy works like one boy.
Two boys work like a half a boy.
Three boys work like no boy at all.
That was us. She’d try to teach us. Planting seeds, just so. She had it all laid out, in her mind. Staples, for a young hungry family. Lots of cukes, pickling, and slicing. Tomatoes, Early Girls, and Big Boys, the same brands I grew this year. Still great performers. String beans, beets, radishes, even a few rows of corn. Squash, big ugly blue monsters, with some acorn, summer squash, and of course, zucchini. She’d always plant a few pumpkins, and we’d magically end up with just enough jack o’lanterns to go around.
Mom would try to get us in there weeding, the tedious stuff that she really could have used help with. We didn’t save her any time. Constant coaching, keeping us close. Don’t step on the vines. You missed a few weeds, you have to get all of them. Yes, that’s a weed. Those ones too. You missed a few. Yes, all of them. Watch out, you’re kneeling on the vine.
I’m sure it was frustrating. Little boys rapidly lose interest, once the tractor and the worms have come and gone.
We weren’t of much use. She’d string a low fence, intended to keep the deer out, but I think it was aimed more at little boys. The deer wouldn’t be much trouble, kept busy with the old apple trees and other tasty greens around the field. We had a track for go karts and mini bikes, looping out around her garden. Way out around, with a big buffer zone. There would be no mishaps, she was serious.
Dad was a little more severe. His Harley, for instance. He always told us that if we accidentally scratched his bike, no matter the circumstances, we could just leave without saying Goodbye.
Harsh, but effective. Mom was a little softer but she had a thick, heavy yardstick in the kitchen closet. We were all quite familiar with it. A few steps toward that folding door, and we’d scatter. We stayed out of her garden. She always seemed to enjoy herself, never put off by the labor. A common yankee trait.
She would put up a scarecrow. Authentic but crude, a stick man in a flannel shirt. Tinfoil pie pans were tied to stakes, creating just enough clatter to keep the birds away.
She used poison dust to keep the bugs down. We weren’t allowed anywhere near it, but just remembering gives me a nasty curdle in the back of my throat. Hornworms found on the tomatoes were quickly dispatched in a crude but effective brick sandwich press. Colorful, but messy. Hard to watch.
I remember one visitor that was never welcome. A varmint that has somehow earned a holiday. The lowly groundhog. A marmot with many names, Land Beaver, Whistle Pig. We call them Woodchucks. Not a clever local moniker, just a garbled version of a Native American name, Wuchack.
A touchy theme in our character, we got it wrong, but it stuck. For 400 years. The whole “American Indian” scenario comes to mind. I don’t mean to stir up any trouble.
Woodchucks were big trouble. They can destroy a young garden in a day, nibbling the tender sprouts with a voracious springtime appetite. They brought out a dimension of Mom that we hadn’t seen before.
Once an invader was spotted, ambling through the tall grass, things got serious in a hurry. Her permanent smile twisted to an angry frown, the sort of look we got when she was headed for the yardstick closet. Not this time. She’d scoot right up the stairs, to her bedroom closet. Reappearing in a flash, lugging her Winchester .22 rifle. A pump action gallery gun that had belonged to her Daddy.
There was a time in our history when carnival shooting galleries used real guns. No corks. Try to picture that carnie, with the crazy eye and lonely teeth, dropping ten fresh bullets down the tube, and handing the rifle over to your wide eyed child. Careful, Sonny. Hit the ducky, win a prize. Those were the days.
Mom would drop five or six shells in her gun on her way down the stairs. Straight to the kitchen window, she was on a mission. She gently clicked the latches on the screen, and slid it up, with hardly a sound. Like a burglar. Three wide eyed kids would pop their eyeballs open even further as she quietly chambered a round. Shlook-click. Shlick-clackt. Sounds that little boys live for. The hammer was back.
We’d seen Dad shoot every gun going, and had lessons each time. Mom was a surprise, I had never even seen her hold one. She slid that baby out over the windowsill like a sniper, in a fluid motion. She brought her cheek down to the stock and found her target, 40 or 50 yards out. She was a work of art. My mind imagined a frontier woman, squaring off with some unseen threat, out the cabin window. Serious and intense, with much at stake.
Mom had never done much killing, either. She has a very loving nature. The varmint would push her over the edge, into the darkness, with a simple garden raid. Taking food right off our table. Unacceptable. Mister Whistle Pig never saw it coming. He probably had a big mouthful of bean sprouts.
We couldn’t look away, and we knew enough to stay still and quiet. She didn’t tremble or waiver, like we all would as we fired our first real weapons. She was leaning on the counter, rigid, locked on target and noting her breathing. Smooth exhale as she squeezed the trigger, ever so gently. PLATCH. It was extra loud, in the kitchen. We jumped.
She wouldn’t need those other bullets. She released the screen and it dropped with a ska-chunk, startling her awestruck children back to reality. Mom. That was so cool.
Happy Days was on primetime. It was cool to say cool.
The former woodchuck would remain on display, a message for the others, until Dad got home. Carcass removal would be his only remaining garden duty. Right there, between the tomato plants and the cucumbers, you can’t miss it. Don’t step on the vines.
The harvest would begin. In a banner season she might let us set up a roadside stand, selling cucumbers and tomatoes. Sharing the wealth with neighbors, at a dime a cuke. Keeping three young entrepreneurs occupied, far from the garden. Win-win.
Mom would can, pickle, and keep fantastic meals on the table all summer. Sliced cucumbers, floating in vinegar. Fat, firm tomatoes sliced thick, with a dollop of mayo. Fresh green beans, drowning in real butter. The blue kind.
She made sour pickles, stout and mustardy, that would put an involuntary pucker on your whole face.
I’ve never had a store-bought pickle that even came close. I can taste hers right now, probably 35 years since I last ate one. My tongue remembers.
Our very favorite part as kids, and the memory that drug this all out of me today.
The first frost had come and gone. A few tomatoes hung hodge-podge down the row. The good ones had all been collected. The corn was picked pretty clean, a few stubby ears remained down low. Dead cucumber vines shriveled up to expose a few missed cukes, fat and yellow now like little footballs. Mom had picked the last crops, the pumpkins and squash were now in the back shed. She was done.
It was officially ours. We were sent to the house, to change our clothes. No school clothes, no school shoes, and she would double check. The fence was opened, the games would begin. The closest we would ever come to a food fight, it was like fantasy vandalism.
I’d stomp those dead cucumber vines, first thing. Take that. All tough. Rotten cukes and tomatoes would fly until there were no more. Hard to throw, not very accurate, but we’d still manage to get covered. Cornstalk sword fights, reckless abandon.
The smell was powerful, hanging in the clothes for a few washes. An exquisite blend of rotten fruit, the nasty smell of tomato plants, soil, dead leaves, general decay. There’s a hint of it in every autumn breeze, if you can sniff it out. It takes me right back, to being 4 feet tall and wearing seeds and goop.
It was all part of Mom’s plan, we were composting the whole time. She’d put all of the stocks and stems on the burn pile out back, and till that garden one final time. A head start for the next season.
Squirrels and birds would visit, after it went quiet, and the scarecrows came down. They’d scavenge for seeds and scraps, while keeping a wary eye on Mom’s kitchen window.
Animals can sense things. Maybe not woodchucks. Maybe they hand down stories like our schoolyard folk tales. Enriched and exaggerated with every generation.
The legend of great grandfather Wuchak, doing the sudden flop of death, in an ancient forgotten garden. What lesson would they take away?
Don’t eat beansprouts. They’re wicked poisonous.