This question recently surfaced among tablets full of scribbled writing exercises: “What did you sincerely learn from your father?” My response follows and couldn’t be more appropriate to the season and Father’s Day.
Along with a treasure trove of life lessons, I learned that precision matters. Training one’s eyes and following specifics can mean the difference between success–the expected outcome–and failure. When my sister Barb and I were–say–ten and twelve and into our teens, we were expected to help with such tasks as were (in those days) assigned to boys. But Daddy had girls, only: Mom, Barb, me and our toddler sister, Carol. And when planting annual gardens, we did our level best to measure up to the same precision Dad practised in his carpenter’s trade.
Always, our dad set the stakes and secured the twine so he could personally drag a hoe or rake handle through the seed-ready plot. This having taken place seventy-seven years ago, I’m not sure if the rows had to be 18″ or 2 feet apart, but no question, Daddy’s vegetable rows met his specifications–precisely straight and unwaveringly spaced from end to end.
Next we were instructed exactly how far apart to drop seeds in the 1/4″ to 1/2″ deep trough he’d scratched out with a wooden hoe handle. Naturally he didn’t just Tell, he Showed. I’m thinking he could have been a writer. And with sensitive fingers–his mouth fixed just so–he’d start dropping beet seeds to get us started. The small rough seeds did lend themselves to the feel of how many to roll between thumb and index finger into the soil. Just like Dad did.
Carrots took a different feel for taking a pinch of fine seeds and allowing a sparse distribution along designated rows. Cucumbers were to be poked into five evenly-spaced holes (one seed each) in a mounded-up pile of soil, each mound a certain distance from another.
By example we were taught how to rake the dirt back over planted rows, maintaining a 1/4″ cover. Then we tamped it firmly with the sturdy teeth, handle straight up. Taller by feet than we were. And taller to this day.
When beets–and carrots with green-feathered tops appeared about an inch above ground, we girls were encouraged to “thin” them. And again, we were shown how to select the biggest and best (survival of the fittest) specimens while discarding the others like weeds, leaving viable seedlings 1 1/2″ to 2″ apart. Dad said this allowed each beet or carrot to reach its desirable size and length at harvest time.
I learned this law of natural selection but I never grew comfortable yanking out and tossing living plants. The 15 cents per row for thinning (and later, weeding) was barely enough incentive for me. Gardening in summer’s heat did not seem worth it. My contribution (labor-wise) was minimal; I did not amass a fortune, no surprise. And in the early 40s a dollar was a fortune.
Now I look back and realize the show-&-tell of gardening must have made an indelible impression on this carpenter’s daughter. I am a compulsive straightener from placemats at table’s edge to whatever’s hanging on a wall. Anybody’s wall. To tease, my dear deceased husband used to say, “Here; you check it, Bubble Eyes,” a pointed reference to my fairly accurate measuring sense sans leveling tool with built-in encased bubble.
Daddy taught me to love the earth and gardening–the pleasure of getting it right, the reward. My present gardens are all about flowers–a variety in abundance on all sides of my home, often requiring my sweating labor till dark. Among useful herbs (Rosemary, Basil, Oregano, Mint, & Parsley) my sole vegetable crop is two green pepper plants in a big patio pot. And I didn’t even plant the seeds!
In my heart–in fond remembrance of my dad–my lovely garden grows.