As I begin my 49th journey around the sun, I find myself reminiscing more and more about the sweeter and simpler times in my life. It’s something I think about a lot, especially with all the madness of the past few years. But I digress.
After my adoption in March of 1980, my life was completely transformed. My new parents were a young couple who were just starting their lives together. My new mother, a public high school Spanish teacher, had just purchased a house and had it moved to a plot of land in the middle of the woods, in Augusta County, Virginia. My new father, an ironworker, spent his weeks up in Washington, DC, and came home on weekends to be with us. Needless to say, we were all adjusting to very new ways of life. They were childless, but wanted to adopt their first (they went on to have seven of their own). I had been raised by my grandparents until the age of six. In July of 1979, I was sent to live with my biological parents. As I’ve explained in previous articles, I was physically and mentally abused and was adopted about eight months later.
One of my first memories with my new parents is still one that I hold near and dear to my heart. One Saturday morning in late April, or early May, I put on the brand- new dark blue overalls my new parents had purchased for me. I’d never even seen, much less worn, overalls up to this point in my life! Clumsily, I slid my right leg in. Then my left. After that, I was clueless. Lovingly, my new father, who was wearing his own pair of overalls, instructed me on how to pull the straps up and over each shoulder, and then how to buckle the clasps onto each button. I stood proudly in my new overalls, ready to get to work.
My father grabbed some shovels, garden rakes, and pick- axes. Together, we carried them to the sunniest part of our yard, which was surrounded by a forest of oaks, maples, dogwoods, and pine trees. He then took the time to explain what we were about to do and why we were doing it. He pointed to the east, where the sun rose above the mountain every morning. He traced the path of the sun across the sky with his finger to the western horizon where it set every evening. He explained that the spot we would be working in would receive the most daylight—daylight that would be essential to grow a garden.
Other than playing in the dirt with my Tonka trucks outside of my grandparents’ home, I had never really had much experience with digging anything, much less a garden. After deciding the dimensions of the garden, my father began the task of breaking up the ground. Placing the tip of the shovel on the ground, he would use his right foot to push down. The metal of the shovel pierced the dirt. Pulling back on the wooden handle, he would loosen the large area, pick it up and turn it over. I stood and watched in amazement as he did this over and over again like a machine. Taking my own shovel in hand, I joined him. But unlike him, my foot made little to no impact on the shovel in penetrating the ground. So, I had to compensate. Holding the shovel up, I would jump up into the air and land on the back of the shovel’s blade with both feet. The shovel might sink a few inches, so I would have to do it again. Slowly, in the morning sun on a late spring day, we turned over the plot of land. two souls who had only known each other for a few weeks, working outside in matching overalls
After the ground had been turned over, we set about breaking up the large clumps of dirt. Pickaxes in hand, we chipped away at the clumps. Over and over and over again, we brought the pickaxes up over our heads, and swung them down into the dirt. Chipping away, we eventually succeeded in producing something that actually started to resemble a garden. The following day, we donned our overalls again and began the next phase. Using garden rakes, we worked the soil over more, breaking up any remaining clumps and throwing any patches of grass or roots into the woods. Next, my new father went about forming long, raised mounds with the pickaxe. Working his way backwards, he would pull the dirt first from one side, then the other. One row, two rows, three rows and so on and so forth. When he was finished, we had perhaps 8 to 10 neatly raised rows of dirt in perfect alignment with each other.
Reaching into his overall pockets, he produced packets of seeds with brightly colored pictures on the fronts showing the vegetables we would have if everything went according to plan. Kneeling down with me , my father showed me how to use my fingers to create a small trench in the middle of the mounded dirt. Dragging my fingers through the cool soil, l would make an impression a few feet long. Turning the packet of seeds over, my father showed me how to read and decipher the information displayed. Making sure we were following the directions as closely as possible, he would hand me the packet. He then instructed me to open the packet by tearing off the top carefully, making sure to do so over the mound just in case some of the seeds accidentally spilled out. First the lettuce seeds, which I remember being so small in my hands. Then, further down the mound, spinach. Next, the radishes. After that, carrots. Each time we planted an area and carefully covered the seeds, we would put a twig into the ground and place the empty seed packet onto it so we could remember what we had planted there. Moving to the next row, we planted the bigger green peas and green beans. I can still remember the feeling of them in my hands and how much easier they were to plant than the minuscule radish, lettuce, and carrot seeds. Next, squash seeds, zucchini seeds, tomato seeds, and corn seeds—row after row after row. Together, we worked to plant our garden in the hopes that it would produce food to be enjoyed that coming summer. Having completed our task, we stood together in the yard and admired the garden we had built with our own two hands and some rudimentary tools.
My dad then showed me how to hook up the hose to the spigot on the side of the house. With the end of the hose in his hand, he walked to the edge of the garden. Holding the hose with his thumb over the opening, my father would spray the cold well water onto the barren dirt mounds and the awaiting seeds hidden within. Back and forth, in slow arcing movements, my father soaked every square inch of the same dirt we had dug up and worked in for hours. When puddles started appearing, he knew to move to another spot until the entirety of the new garden had been watered
During the week, while my father was working in the nation’s capital, my mother and I were in charge of the garden. Each day we would check it for weeds or water it, if we hadn’t received any rain recently. Day after day passed. At first, I started wondering if we had done something wrong. Nothing was happening. If the goal was to grow dirt, we were succeeding. But finally, one morning, before walking to the bus stop, I made my way down to the garden to see if anything had changed. To my excitement, there were small green plants appearing in the soil. Each day brought more growth and more excitement. Weeks passed and the fruits (or in this case, vegetables) of our labor were paying off. Some days brought showers and thunderstorms, which quenched the plants’ thirst without the use of the garden hose.
Eventually, the day came when the plants were mature enough to actually enjoy them. Before supper, my mother and I would go out to the garden with a colander and pick enough lettuce, spinach, and carrots to make salads for the two of us. When the green beans and peas were ready, we would carefully pick the ones that were mature and place them into a container, as we worked our way down the rows of leafy green plants. Later, the red tomatoes were picked and made for some of the tastiest tomato sandwiches I can ever remember enjoying.
Through the summer, we picked everything that the garden produced. We sat together as a family on weekends when my father was home and shared in the bounty of that garden. When I think back now, the lessons I learned from growing a garden are with me to this day. It’s been years since I’ve grown my own garden, although I still have the skills to do it. But the garden itself, and the lessons from it, are just a small part of what I learned.
What I truly learned about is LOVE. I learned what it was like to be loved again by a man who took the time to teach me, to show me, and to make me feel like I was important once more in a world that can be so cruel. I was shown love by a woman who cared for me by preparing the food from that garden to nourish my growing body. In that short span of time, when it was just me and my new parents, the memories I made are so much more than a story about growing corn or radishes (which I still hate to this day). It is a story about the most important thing we have in life. It is a story about growing LOVE.