by Tim Gilmore, 2/21/2022
I remember the rows of corn, of black eyed peas, of string beans, of tomatoes in the spring and potatoes in the winter. I remember the summer brutalized tomatoes while the okra thrived. I think I remember. It’s hard to discern what I remember from the countless copies of the memory.
What I know I remember: when the heads of winter greens grew so large they overran their hillocks, filling the troughs in between; helping my father pull carrots, getting my tiny fingers under the soil just right to grasp the taproot and not break it off at the crown; following him up and down the rows, mimicking his actions; his snapping at me when I got in the way, my saying, “I’m trying to be helpful,” his reply, “You’re too helpful.”
My father’s garden made magic, created cosmogonies, whole worlds birthed there or, at least, whole understandings of the world. Much the same thing. And that’s a problem that plagues me: what’s the difference between the world and how you see it? You never get beyond your seeing of the world to know it. You never get beyond your knowing of the world to the world itself.
Looking at old photos does terrible things to the memory. It replaces the images in the head, however distorted and from whatever origins. The old photo newly seen superimposes itself on the image both preserved and altered in memory.
Things I don’t remember, though I’m tempted to feel that I do after gazing into these photos taken in the 1980s: my father growing the pineapple by the back door after we’d had the house painted blue; my father standing shivering in the cold with his garden rake, tining the snow off the cabbages and lettuces and onions in 1989, year of the Florida snowstorm; this forest of bulbous and megalocephalic roses my father grew; this photo of my mother as she reclined in a lawn chair, my father sitting behind her, at the start of her fatal illness.
My mother had bought the two-bedroom concrete-block ranch-style house when it was new in 1959. Her first marriage in this house wrought tragedy and joy. (It’s easy to forget when joy, which blooms in smaller and shorter efflorescences, gets left out of the narrative arc.) In this house she celebrated her second wedding, to my father, my sisters’ three weddings, and my entrance into the late fog of the middle 1970s, the house still painted pink.
The English and Social Studies teachers, both women in their 20s (I remember pretty blue eyes and a delicate jawline), from the private Christian school I attended after my mother died, visited once and we all four laughed about a man and his son living in a pink house. So my father had the house painted blue. Now it seems that I lived with my parents for a thousand happy years before she grew sick for two thousand-year years and died, and that all this personal history is both thousands of years old and present.
Another not-quite-memory. My sister Katie thought she’d noticed Mom slurring and worried she was taking too much medication. My sister Wanda took this picture not long before Mom fell and broke her collarbone, then fell again in the bathroom, then fell again and broke her hip in the kitchen and her neurodegeneration, previously undetected, accelerated.
But I don’t remember the day of this photograph. Most of our days we never remember. We remember so much, too much, it seems, the years piling on years; we remember almost nothing, it seems, most of our days simply gone away. We lived them. We must have. We’re here: after all.
For example, as I write this sentence, I’ve lived nearly 572 months. I’ve lived 2,487 weeks. I’ve lived 17, 409 days. I’ve lived 417, 816 hours. I’ve lived more than 25 million minutes. How do I account for these measurements?
My father would have marked his 98th birthday today. The century draws near. So how do I account for my father’s garden, that magical place, that birthplace of cosmogonies? And how do I compare the length of my father’s life to the time since the infant, known in archaeological records as Le Moustier 2, a mostly complete newborn Neanderthal skeleton discovered 10 years before my father’s birth, 1914, bones already more than 40,000 years old, lived what unremembered life she lived?
These 1980s photos both affirm and deconsecrate the memory of my father’s garden. Surely it wasn’t so small! Surely the other concrete- block ranch-style houses didn’t huddle so close! Surely disrepair hadn’t so set in: the rusted rain gutters, the window screens perched against the house, the buckets and chicken wire and the old rugs hung on the rabbit cages behind me while I faked a pull-up on the clothesline post!
I remember the garden as the beginning of the world. I hadn’t yet differentiated between culture and nature, agri-culture and wilderness, the world and the earth. I knew the world began in the soil and the elements and the things that grew up from it. I knew compost fueled new life, dead things repurposed to break themselves down to feed seedlings and saplings and fledglings. Saturated in the Bible, I knew the story of the Garden of Eden and my father’s was the garden I knew from my own origins so intimately.
One night, I might have been seven or eight years old, I told my parents I’d heard a baby crying outside in the garden. My father investigated, broke up a standoff between stray cats. Once I pulled up a pile of black plastic garbage bags by the garden and uncovered a nest of rat snakes turning strangely in circles like swirling swastikas. My first sexual dream, a vague feminine figure stood over me and shot down stalks and tendrils. In my late teens, I perched myself in a ragged fiberglass lawn chair in the back corner of the garden, stuck my feet in the honeysuckle and read paperback horror novels like Ramsey Campbell’s 1980 The Parasite and his 1976 debut, The Doll Who Ate His Mother.
In my 30s and 40s, I’ve occasionally gardened. Sometimes I’ve done it well. Sometimes I come slowly unmoored and lose sense of meaning and tip into anhedonia, but the feeling of putting my hands in the earth, whether pulling weeds or planting seeds, always reconnects me, grounds me, sustains me. It rebodies and reminds me.
In my father’s last years, decades after he’d moved away from my childhood home, he and I visited his muscadine vines, his satsuma trees, and I helped him trim his goats’ hooves and rob his bees. Now I write romantically of the city and yearn for farmland. We butted heads like dumb old masculine goats whose skulls are solid rocks without brains. We couldn’t have been more different because we were so much the same. Sometimes when I’ve ridden my bike 16 miles and notice my legs in the shower, I see my father’s legs when I helped him in the bathroom in the last six months of his life.
He grew up on a farm, was part of that Great Migration of Georgia Farmers to Jacksonville that set so much of the city’s ornery, hard-nosed, simultaneously hardworking but self-defeating personality in the mid-20th century. His own childhood farm, remade into our backyard garden, staged my early life. I see him scaffolding cucumbers in his flannel shirt and wide-brimmed hat, or, much later, opening wooden boxes to hold baby bluebirds in his hands and show them to my daughters.
When I was young, I associated my depressions and creative manias with my mother; as I matured, I connected my stubborn head-batterings to my father, with whose horns mine had so frequently steadily locked. I am made in his image. My heart is formed of the tilth of his garden.