Of gardeners and dusty barns, and stories of long ago

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Early Squash — photo by author

A while back, my neighbor, a tiny Polish woman,
climbed a rickety wooden ladder leaned against the fence.
I saw her hand first, breaking away the ivy so she could see through,
she passed over a bucket of eggs from her chickens.
Maybe for the tray of seedlings I left outside her gate.
In this time, and maybe always, the best of international trade.

Hard times, they say, brings out the best.
But it’s also true that shit floats,
and when the tide is low,
much is revealed.

I grew up with the old timers and their stories;
at the meat counter at Reeds’ Store —
If they didn’t have it,
you didn’t need it —
strings of red hotdogs,
wheels of crumbly store cheese
furniture up the creaking stairs on the third floor,
every kind of nail a fellow could want
weighed out on the old scoop scale and poured off into paper bags —
talking about the cost of hamburger,
“A dollar twenty seven, I remember when it was seven cents a pound and Ronnie’d grind it fresh for you.”

Waiting for the tide, I heard how they dug hods of clams,
shucked them out around a driftwood fire,
drinking bootleg rum,
packed the meats into quart jars,
loaded clams and crew in a Model A Ford
down to the wharf to sell for twenty-five cents a quart.

I remember Ted,
mowing the field in a pair of shorts held up with the length of rope.
His mower tended to pull to one side on account of the one wooden wheel.
He taught me to sharpen a scythe,
watched me cut hay from his front porch
set aside his tin mug of rum and water to go back into his barn
looking for that scrap of old grindstone,
among cigar box collections of brass fittings,
stacks of carefully folded sandpaper,
jam jars of straightened nails.
A row of pickle jars packed with the tail end of every bar of soap they’d used in forty years.

Saving for a rainy day,
just in case,
praying it would never come again.
But every jar and every make-do act,
testimony that they knew,
that they heard the footsteps
and the hand raised to knock upon the door.
They set aside their days for our future.

And what of the summer generations since?
Read the news,
always figuring it’s all so far away
figure summer’s here to stay,
called by every glittering distraction,
claiming rights that others earned,
living on the margin of extraction;
caught up in the calculus of want,
never paying forward,
nothing set aside for the day that was sure to come.

And so,
and so,
until.

A day of reckoning come,
dark now with discontent,
the surly shadows fall
as the seasons change.
So easy to count each blessing lost.
But on these clear nights,
when the stars shine with a brilliance we’d almost forgotten,
I remember my mother’s garden,
a small square scraped out of sour, rocky soil,
so full of hope for things to come.

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