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Grandpa's Tomato Garden
The garden was so small.
It was a tiny square of land, cut into a huge yard of trees, un-raked leaves, and withering grass; one speck of vibrant life in the world of brown surrounding it. Yellow squash, deep green cucumbers; tangled vines. But out of all these things, I remember the tomatoes the most. They were the large, red, and round kind of tomatoes that you just didn’t see at Food Lion. Farmer’s tomatoes.
It was for them that I arrived at my grandparents’ house that day, clad in gardening gloves and a determined disposition. I had a job to do, and I more than anyone else understood how much of an honor it was. Not just anyone could work on Grandpa’s garden. Not just anyone could tend to his tomatoes. And yet here I was.
In retrospect, I didn’t actually do all that much. For understandable reasons, I was not given the job of messing with the tomatoes themselves, but rather the stakes that surrounded them. I’d been told of how vital this job was, though seemingly trivial. The tomatoes had to stay upright, they told me. Otherwise, the plant could very well die. The lives of Grandpa’s tomatoes were in my small, eleven-year-old hands.
I remembered, walking past the tree stump that Grandpa had cut down to create a table-slash-dance floor for my siblings and me a few years before-hand, how grandpa and grandma used to warn us away from the garden, telling us not to mess around over there; we might step on a squash. But today I stepped with one small foot right into the middle of the garden, with the other still planted safely on the dry, tan grass. I didn’t want to completely expose myself to the dangers of having two feet in the garden quite yet. This was safer.
The garden was small. But so was I.
I went about my work, beating the wooden stakes into the dirt around the tomatoes, avoiding the squash and cucumbers that lay just beside them. My Grandpa stood on the screened-in porch, smoking a cigarette, my dad says. The pressure was on.
I don’t remember it taking horribly long, but time is known to do far stranger things to memories. Surprisingly, I also don’t remember the response, the entire reason why I’d come – was Grandpa satisfied with my work? I’d like to think he was, but after all of that, I don’t remember his words, whether his long, brown, leathery face had pulled into a smile or a frown…nothing. Only the tomatoes. Pounding the wooden stakes in a small box around the twisting vines. The sun, white, hot; peeking through the trees that surrounded the house. Avoid the squash. Don’t hit the squash.
I don’t know how I could have forgotten. It was so important to me that I succeeded in making him happy. But I just can’t remember. The other question in my mind, the question no one in my family can seem to answer with complete confidence, is how sick Grandpa already was.
It wasn’t long after that, no matter who tells the story, that my grandpa passed. He’d never liked the doctor; never liked hospitals. So naturally, when it finally got bad enough that my dad forced him to go, the cancer was simply too big. His lungs, of course. We’d all told him; even I had tried to get him to quit because the man from the D.A.R.E. program said smoking was bad for you.
My parents both say that they think my grandpa didn’t know he was sick when he watched me put the stakes around his tomatoes. But I could swear to anyone and anything that it was after they’d told him there was nothing more the hospital could do. My dad told me later that I was the last grandchild he ever saw in person. The last picture they ever sent to him was of my little sister, eating a small piece of yellow squash.
Those days are all a blur. It’s tough believing that he was only on chemo for three weeks. It seemed so much longer. Did he smoke that cigarette on the screened in porch, or was it all he could do to stand and walk outside? I just don’t remember.
Keep the line straight. Avoid the squash. Don’t step on the squash.