Circling the Garden
by McCabe Coolidge of Beaufort, NC
On summer Saturday mornings before breakfast, when the dew on the grass sparkled and the sun shyly blinked through soft green maple leaves, my dad would take my hand and lead me outside for a ‘circling of the garden.’
Against the white backdrop of Harley Holmes’ garage, my dad would pause and tenderly hold up the bud of a red rose. “Look at this one, that one…” he would whisper, sharing a quiet intimacy. He would linger next to each rose bush, tell me quietly, “Your mother loved roses,” then silence, maybe he said silent prayer or offered a blessing. I nodded, keeping silent, fearing he would let loose of my hand to grab an errant stick or pull a weed.
Rounding the southeast corner of our small yard, my dad would kneel to search for sprightly green sprouts. Often he would murmur, “Darn Squirrels.” Braced behind these sprouts, adjacent to our white picket fence, were trellises of green beans.
Our white garage faced south and here were stakes of tomatoes. The stalks were tied with twine. We stopped. My dad reached in to the front pocket of his khaki pants and pulled out a saltshaker he had grabbed on our way out of the kitchen. He picked a tomato, salted and bit into it, testing its taste and juiciness before passing it to me for a pre-breakfast treat. Each of us leaned forward, the juice spilling harmlessly on the grass.
Completing our circuit we returned to our back door where some white trellises were fastened on each side of the kitchen window for morning glories to rise up. Most of my dad’s friends kidded him about his ‘flowering weed’ and how devoted he was to the whites and blues that opened with the morning sun. He smiled and changed the subject to his roses and bugs. The morning glories reminded me of a vertical linen tablecloth, an interwoven border of color around our window and our white-shingled house.
When I was six, this morning ritual stopped. My dad remarried and built a bedroom for the two of them next to the living room. To do this, he moved the porch from the south side to the east side of the house. And on Saturday mornings he stayed in bed, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper. I fixed my own breakfast. My dad and I would eat oatmeal or cream of wheat. Now laid out on the kitchen table were little boxes of corn pops and rice krispies. Store bought milk, not the bottled kind we had before.
In the corner created by the porch and the new bedroom, my dad planted ‘Leah’s rose garden.’ He chose orange and yellow roses. He would take Leah’s hand and lead her to the garden and show her how to plant and prune. As they kneeled together patting the soil, nipping errant buds, I could hear him whisper to her as I stood inside the screened porch.
By mid-summer there was a change. “Not right now Jack, I’m busy. Later, after lunch, maybe,” Leah would say, putting him off. I grew lean and tall, started playing basketball and riding bikes, hitting softballs then hardballs. And there was another change. When I would come into the kitchen, my dad would be there drinking coffee, smoking a Phillip Morris and gazing out at the garden. “Want to take a look at he garden, Bill?” He’d snuff out his cigarette, unlimber his long lanky body, not waiting for my answer and we would go on a tour of the garden. Our first stop on our counterclockwise walk was ‘Leah’s garden.’ She never developed an interest in ‘her’ garden. She liked to stay in bed until mid-morning.
After we walked, paused, my dad bending over here and there, we would go into the garage where he would pick up his spade, a trowel, his old work gloves and I would pick up my baseball, bat and glove.
After my first year away at college, I came home for the summer. The rose bushes were dug up and removed. “What happened to them?” I asked curious. “Old and tired, I didn’t want to replant.” He switched to zinnias.
Married with kids, living in the south, I planted huge vegetable gardens, starting with peas in February and ending with a second planting of broccoli and greens in the fall. When I brought my family back to Michigan for a visit each summer I noticed fewer growing things in his garden. The first to go were the tomatoes. “Dry rot, couldn’t save them.” Then the zinnias. “Leah didn’t go out to cut them anymore.”
When my dad turned 75, the Zerbel’s sold out and moved to a nursing home and a new family moved in next door. Dave liked to garden. The following spring he planted beans and lettuce in my dad’s fallow garden. With his bedroom slippers on, dad and I slowly walked across the wet green grass to the white picket fence. He complained about the ‘hot spell’ but then he pointed at the patch of beans and lettuce. Dark black soil, lively green sprouts, a twinkle in his eye. The same twinkle I saw when I was five. A vision regained, I held his hand as the sun sparkled through the oaks and maple. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d searched in his pocket for a saltshaker.