Columns » Boomer with Attitude

A rejuvenating memoir of sorts

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I was going to write about one political issue or other this week, but the weather kept interfering. This time of year, with the days awakened by warmth and new greenery shooting up wherever you look, my thoughts have been shifting back to Charlie. It happens nearly every spring. Charlie Grooms, my father's father, "Grampa" to me, was a first-rate gardener, as well as my connection to the pre-modern, nature- and land-centered culture of early-20th century Appalachia.

But Charlie, born in Madison County, N.C., in 1899, was also a cipher, a cluster of contradictions, close at hand but from another world. He had "bummed around" the country in his teens and saw more things than most of the people he knew, yet he was still rooted in his youth's mountain mindset. A natty dresser from "the hills," he was reserved around those he didn't know well, but he charmed family and friends with his lively wit and knack for wordplay. He worked in cotton mills, painted houses, hunted a little, loved radio comedies, and took part in the Great Textile Strike of 1934. He delivered corn liquor during Prohibition for a brother-in-law, was framed for a theft he didn't commit, spent two years on a prison farm from which he then escaped, and always carried a sharp pocketknife that he had to use occasionally to protect himself from the violent, larger men (he was 5'7") who often inhabited the margins of the Piedmont's gritty mill towns. In the spring, though, he was first and foremost a gardener.

For four years, when I was ages 5-8, we lived next door to my grandparents, and the two families shared a large garden that ran nearly to the creek behind our homes. I guess the garden was about a half acre, although at my age, a space that size seemed enormous -- a separate world of orderly rows of plants where I temporarily forgot about rock n' roll and The Lone Ranger, and became acquainted with rabbits and potato bugs while "helping" the grown-ups weed.

Our families grew corn, squash, cabbage, beans, melons, potatoes, strawberries and more, but not until Charlie had first prepared the soil. He broke the earth with a handheld plow and a mule he borrowed from a friend. To me, the mule was a noble but smelly interloper in our routine: a leathery, hairy, sweaty animal who, although he was much more cooperative than his breed's reputation would have had me believe, was prone to sudden, momentary stops in which he would slowly turn his head to gaze at Charlie, as if reminding himself why he wasn't on his own, more familiar land.

When I was six, Charlie was looking after me on plowing day. His friend had walked the mule to my grandparents' house and left it, along with a harness and reins. Charlie hitched the mule to his plow and broke the soil as I watched. When the hardest work was finished and he was ready to start the second go-round, Charlie turned to me and asked, "Why don't you come up here and help me?" I ran over to him, carefully avoiding the mule, and waited to be told what to do.

He instructed me first in the proper stance for the job: "Stand here in front of me and grab these reins, like this." I did as I was told. Charlie actually held the reins, clutching the blackened leather straps a foot behind the spot where they came out the back of my fists.

"Now shake 'em, not too hard, so they hit his rump. Don't slap him with 'em, just let him know you want him to go." I flicked my wrists the way I'd seen him doing it and, my God, the mule actually started walking forward. I walked through the dirt behind the animal, just ahead of Charlie, whose arms cradled me. We stopped occasionally, when the mule had to relieve itself, or when we needed a glass of ice water.

It's difficult to describe childhood feelings, even one's own, at such a great distance from them, but I know that I felt I was a part of what Charlie was doing -- our families' garden was mine, too -- and I belonged there, a real part of the process of putting food on the table. I realize now that this was probably close to the way people used to feel innately connected to the land, long before the days of supermarkets and methane winter tomatoes. Of course, we were already in those newer days by the first time Charlie let me "help" him plow; but even though the postwar boom had brought the modern world to my hometown, it took awhile for the region's inner culture to make the change.

Today, my connection to "the land" is pretty much limited to admiring my wife's flower gardens and buying veggies at the farmers market. But nearly every spring, Charlie and the mule come to mind, odd symbols of growth and renewal. And I wind up feeling grateful for a man I never completely understood, one who'd seen more hardship than I ever will, and yet still managed to "feel the juices," as he'd say, of the season, and get down to the work of reinventing his surroundings, and himself.


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