The clay soil of my father's vegetable garden was tangerine-colored, as hard as roof tile during dry times and sloppy-sticky in wet ones. It permanently stained round spots on the knees of his work pants and, when mixed with sweat, painted streaks on his freckled arms, like cheap self-tanning lotion.
Any shoes worn into the garden were no use for anything else after, since they were tinted grainy orange and so caked with dirt that it would take a sharp stick and lots of digging to pry it off. They were left at the back door, to get rained on or tossed back into the shed.
You couldn't scrape the Piedmont North Carolina clay off my father, either.
At its height, the garden took up about a quarter acre of the back yard, so big that he paid a man from the cattle farm across the road to plow it up with a tractor in the spring. Even as my father aged and shrank, there were always a few tomato plants; maybe a little leaf lettuce.
He never completely let go of the earth, until they put him in it.
My father was born in summer and died on a fall day, but spring is when I think of him. The prospect of another season of corn, tomatoes, green onions, squash, black-eyed peas and all the other vegetables he grew made him sparkle and practically bounce around. He handled his garden the way a potter molds his medium into something that can be a thing of beauty but is, at heart, useful.
When my husband and I bought our house, more than 15 years ago, there wasn't enough sun to plan on a good vegetable garden. I planted drifts of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias, with daffodils of all sorts. My father looked at my several weekends' worth of work and said, "How come you don't plant anything you can eat?" That's the kind of question that growing up on a farm during the Depression will keep in your mind, I suppose.
My father didn't go to church. I think the garden was sort of his church. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and I suspect there are few nonbelievers digging rows for corn or peppers, either. Growing food is an act of faith and patience.
You'd think cooking could foster patience in a similar way. Cooking takes raw ingredients and combines them into something way beyond the sum of their parts. I wait for the final result, knowing that flavors taste different at the beginning of the process than they will at the end. That's true in simmering a tomato sauce, for example.
Baking is a miracle of chemistry, with no way to predict by just looking at the components that flour, butter and other powders and potions would yield a golden pound cake.
But patience in my kitchen hours hasn't carried over. I am an impatient gardener. Now that I've had some trees removed for more sun, I buy tomato plants nearly big enough to fruit, and fret over them. My father only purchased small bedding plants where absolutely necessary -- tomatoes and bell peppers, mainly. He grew everything else from seed. He thought plants were too expensive and that you'd get more than enough plants from a little seed packet.
Early planting meant trips to the feed store, an exotic land populated by men with clay-caked boots who patted little girls on the head and let them play in the bin of seed corn. The big, hard kernels reminded me of horse's teeth, and the seed beans looked just like the ones my mother soaked and cooked for dinner. But you can't plant them, my father said; they were different.
I often asked to plant things from the kitchen, which obviously would never come up. Instead of saying no, my father said, "Let's see what happens." For the record, popcorn kernels from the supermarket bag will not sprout popcorn plants, nor will seeds from a lemon or orange out of the refrigerator grow anywhere near the point of producing fruit. But we never knew -- one day, things might be different.
Farmers, of either the backyard or lower-40 variety, are some of the most optimistic people I know. They know the thousands of things that can go wrong -- beetles, drought, fungus, flood -- and assume that at least some of those things will. An organic farmer once told me that she didn't feel too bad if a bug got her crop because at least it wasn't something she did wrong. That's a positive outlook.
Farmers rub the sides of their faces with their hands and go right on planting every spring. Like my father, leaving tender tomato plants wide room to grow and putting cucumber seeds in raised hills, so the heavily laden vines of July would be able to flow down.
The gray-black soil of my back yard dustily crumbles when dry, just before turning to concrete. Even wet, it leaves no permanent mark and is easily brushed away from my shoes and pants before I walk into the kitchen.
But I will dig deep. Last summer, I picked my first tomatoes: Early Girls and Brandywines. Their skins were as smooth and warm as a baby's bottom; small miracles in which I felt I had little hand.