Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The land of the living

Back at home for a very short while -- my father's death interrupted a planned "conference season" schedule including two trips for which the college had already paid airfare, so I must soon travel again soon, but first I need to get things in order around here.

Once I got out of my own bed for the first time in days, there was much to do, so I got on and did it.

The bills all needed to be paid. Lots of bills. First things first. Everything that takes place on this farm would come to a halt soon enough if this chore didn't happen.

The lawn needed mowed. Our land grows grass in profusion, which is great most years, since we feed sheep on it all summer. But this year the weather has been perfect for grass -- a good soaking shower every few days and temperatures warm but not too warm. All the paddocks have gone to seed. I can live with that -- if a paddock goes to seed it can be mowed in the fall before the winter dormancy period sets in.

Paddocks need to be mowed only once a year, if at all. Usually the sheep keep them down.

But although we graze sheep and poultry on the front lawn and the "island" of our school bus turnaround, we also sit on them ourselves or with guests and occasionally have a cook-out and eat outside on them and play with dogs and cats on them and generally use them as lawn.

And when a lawn goes to seed it just looks crap.

So it was with reluctance that I fired up our ancient decrepit Bolens landscape tractor and kicked the ancient decrepit mower deck into life and mowed the entire area. I hate mowing, and usually work hard with electric fencing to get the sheep to do it. But this year the poor sheep just can't keep up.

Then it was on to the garden. It was a perfect day for hoeing weeds -- hot and dry with a drying breeze. The weeds once hoed would die nicely in the sun. I was a happy hoer. I didn't need to hoe the entire garden, only about half. The rest was fine.

I'll have to go back today and hand-weed between the onion plants.

Then lunch and a nap. Jet-lagged.

Then the growing tomatoes needed tomato cages. We use wire cages instead of stakes for our tomato plants. These cages are cheap and widely available, and we've made a collection over the years from hardware stores and garage sales. It takes a few hours to provide each plant with a cage, and because it's fiddly and repetitive, it's not a chore I especially enjoy. This year I was able to get into it, though, and did it all in one go.

It was as I was caging the tomatoes that I thought again about my dad, who also loved to grow tomatoes. Although he and mum visited me in the states several times, dad never saw one of my gardens, at least not that I can remember. This despite the fact that I grew my first American garden in 1988 and have grown one almost every year since.

They always came in the off-season, to save money, see.

My sister and I have of course been conducting the usual fiscal autopsy on their papers, and I discovered that towards the end of dad's life they could probably have afforded to come anytime of the year, but by then the Alzheimers had set in for both of them. Flying in from America and thus more able to see the changes than those around them, I first detected memory loss in my parents many, many years before it was diagnosed by the doctors.

It didn't help that both parents but especially my dad hated to go to the doctors.

And the result was that the disease progressed without treatment. One side-effect was that they stopped traveling. Even though both of them swore that their memories were fine, mother's innate conservatism kept them at home, until, she kept saying, they'd "saved up." "Maybe next year we'll come and see you," she said. But when I saw how bad they were getting I hoped not.

And so they didn't come. I expect Mother knew, subconsciously, if not consciously that something was wrong and they couldn't come. She worked hard to keep her husband safe at home as long as she was able despite her own failing faculties. This was instinctive on her part, especially towards the end. It was after she herself broke her hip that dad started wandering and then of course the authorities began to require treatment. After mother broke her hip again, after she herself was made to go in a home, everything fell apart with dad, and eventually he was put in the psych ward where he quickly died.

And so my parents never saw the farm. In retrospect I think that they were probably too far gone even the first year we got it, which was 2005. The last year in which they traveled to the states, if I remember right, was 1996-1997. They came in the winter to the place I was care-taking, an old farmhouse in the Quaker village of Sandy Spring, just outside of DC. I grew gardens there, but nothing was growing that winter.

Now mother will very likely never leave her hospital bed again. Sister Carol has lots of farm pictures to show her, but she can only keep her appreciation up for one or two pictures at a time, and forgets right away what she's seen.

Still, dad would have loved to see these long beds of tomatoes growing so well.

No blight so far, no thrips or aphids. Everything is growing too fast for the pests. Even the potato beetles seem subdued by the pace of this season. The whole farm is vastly fertile. Our garden is rampant, while our grazings are simply out-of-control. Everything is lush greenery. It's looking like a bumper crop.

Mum and dad would have loved it.

But if we do it for anyone other than ourselves, we do it for them. I don't believe in spirits or ghosts, but I must admit I've often felt the presence of my grandad while gardening. I think this is really just my own subconscious at work, remembering him in the garden, which was really where he spent his life except for the years in and between the wars when he was a British soldier. As a very young kid I spent my summers there with him. So when I'm in the garden it often feels to me like he's there.

My dad will be there now too, I expect, for the rest of my life.

In the tomatoes.

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