Sunday afternoon found me in the vegetable garden staking and typing up tomatoes. I can’t believe how fast they grew. Only two weeks ago I examined their lush foliage, but they stood only about a foot tall, and the original strips of old sheets I’d used to tie their stems to the tobacco stakes gleaned from a neighbor’s barn clean out seemed sufficient. I mowed the lawn and let Shadow play in the fenced in garden. Every time I ran the push mower down the grassy paths between the raised beds, I noticed how odd the tomato plants looked. It took me a few more passes around the garden before I realized the unruly plants had toppled and tangled all over themselves, bending, twisting and growing into one mat of greenery.
Gardening is a meditative act for me. While I’m gardening, I’m meditating. I find my mind quieting. Chatter slows, then stops. I hear only bird song, the hum of bees in the clover, Shadow snuffling around the garden or rolling happily on the grassy paths, kicking her solid feet in the air in glee, doing air bicycles like an old-fashioned girls school gymnastics class. As I untangled snarls of tomato branches and gently coaxed the stems back to the tomato stakes, the sharp green smell of growing tomato plans drifted me back in time to my grandmother’s garden.
I’ve written a bit about my father’s mother, my grandma who spoke mostly German and who lovingly tended her little garden in Bellerose, creating heaven on earth for a woman uprooted from her own little farm near Bremen as a teenager. She loved her garden and especially her tomato plants. I remember happily following her skirts around the garden, watching as she pulled strips of cloth from the pocket of her apron and tied tomatoes to stakes in her garden.
My grandma always said things to me as a girl that I found odd. “Make sure you can always grow your own food!” she would admonish, pointing proudly to her little apple trees and pear trees growing in her Queens, New York City backyard. She grew so many vegetables in that European-style kitchen garden that she canned tomato soup, tomatoes, tomato sauce, pears, you name it. My dad built her shelves in the basement for her canned goods.
It wasn’t until many years later that my grandmother’s statements clicked into place for me like puzzle pieces locking and forming a picture. I’d come across a photograph of the ship that took my grandmother and her two sisters, Augusta and Marie, from Bremen to the United States in the early 1920s. She had docked at Ellis Island like many other immigrants. I had once asked her in childish curiosity, “Grandma, why did you come to the United States?”
“A loaf of bread,” she told me, “Cost a wheelbarrow full of money.”
I didn’t understand what she meant, but studying the photos on Ancestry.com of other immigrants around that time and understanding today what the words “runaway inflation” means I got a glimpse of my grandmother’s life in Germany before, during and immediately after World War I. She never spoke about the war or how it affected the farm she lived on; but she knew what hunger was, and she knew how governments could fail, and she knew how insanity could lead men to lead their countries into chaos, war, bankruptcy and insanity.
Grandma was wise. When she pointed to her garden and said, “Always grow your own food,” she made a far more important speech than any politician trumpeting about freedom on a bunting-draped stage. The right to grow your own food, the ability to ensure your family will be fed – this is a fundamental right that I take for granted. Living in a peaceful, stable country, with the ability to grow my own food, preserve it, and ensure that my family will be fed…this is a freedom my grandma understood.
Staking tomatoes always makes me think of my grandmother, and I know this week as I face the prospect of canning beets from the garden, the canning pot and its rituals will also remind me of my grandmother. I am so grateful that I had real, honest to goodness elders in the garden to learn from – my grandmother, Mr. Hoffman, my dad – to teach me the rituals and values of the soil.