I was going to write about one local issue or another today, but the weather kept interfering. This time of year, with the days awakened by warmth, and everyone's cars covered by the yellow pollen monster, my thoughts often shift back to Charlie. My father's father, "Grampa" to me, Charlie was a first-rate gardener, and, although he and I didn't know it at the time, he was my connection to the pre-modern, land-centered culture of the early-20th century South.
Charlie, born in Madison County, N.C., in 1899, had seen the country as a teenager while "bumming around" out west; and had experienced some of the best and worst things life had to offer. He was a wary yet generous neighbor, a joker and an occasional Saturday hellraiser. 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. It 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 Superman, and became acquainted with rabbits and potato bugs while "helping" the grown-ups with the weeding.
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, pulled by a mule he borrowed from a friend. To me, the mule was a noble but smelly newcomer: a leathery, whiskery, sweaty animal who, although he was more cooperative than his breed's reputation suggested, was prone to sudden 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 6, 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 and asked me, "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 surrounded and supported me. We stopped occasionally, when the mule had to relieve itself, or when we needed a glass of ice water.
It's hard 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 that day; 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 change from its more natural rhythms.
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 had 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. C
A longer version of this essay was published in 2009, and is included in Deliver Us From Weasels, available at Park Road Books and Paper Skyscraper.