Most summers in Alabama are hot and humid, but that one set records, even for us. It was the kind of summer that made the kids lie spread-eagled on a rag rug in the living room, watching the ceiling fan spin fruitlessly overhead. It urged the adults to rock a steady rhythm on their porches, sipping sweet tea and fishing the occasional ice cube from their glasses to cool their heated skin.
But it hadn’t started out that way.
The day that Grandpa and I planted our garden was one of those honey-sweet days when the air is hazy with pollen. You become just a bit dizzy breathing it in, but you do it anyway because you know that, somehow, you are breathing in the sun itself.
Grandpa laid out the rows of our garden, his red tractor sputtering back and forth in the dirt, and handed me a box of seeds he had saved from the previous year. He’d neatly sorted the tiny shapes into various containers – old jelly jars, plastic freezer cartons, and the occasional Ziploc baggie.
Pointing at the first row, he said, “We’ll plant the zinnias by the road, then peas, tomatoes, squash, okra, corn…” He continued, naming each vegetable matter-of-factly, yet as familiarly as if it were part of his own body.
We bent to our work, crawling along the rows, placing two or three seeds in the small holes that we made with our fingers every few feet. The smell of freshly-turned dirt, pleasantly spiked by overtones of diesel fuel from Grandpa’s tractor, collected in the back of my throat like a heady swallow of whiskey.
Afterward, we washed our dusty feet with the hose hooked to the side of Grandpa’s house and sat on the porch swing, enjoying the breeze gently playing through Grandma’s wind chime. We sipped from sweet tea glasses, their surfaces slick with condensation, and listened to the ice cubes clinking merrily against their sides.
As the days sank into the depths of summer, the heat became unbearable. Our pleasantly mild spring had not indicated such a cruel summer, though I think Grandpa might have suspected it. If he had known, it wouldn’t have mattered to him.
“Too hot,” he said with a chuckle when I told him one day that the weatherman had advised us to stay indoors. “You have to walk the garden every day and see what needs to be done. Then you do it. That’s the only way to have a good garden.”
So, despite the temperature, he went out each morning, the dew from the plants making dark, wet spots on the hem of his faded blue breeches. Then, he called me on his black rotary phone. “I reckon the okra’s going to need picking today,” he’d say, and I would arrive after my history class at the community college, wearing an old T-shirt and cut-off jeans.
Each day that we worked, Grandpa bent to his task with efficiently purposeful movement. He periodically glanced over his shoulder, appraising my efforts. Despite my progress, his words remained constant. “Every time you think about it, hurry up.”
We staked tomato plants, our fingers turning green as we tied the tender stems onto wooden poles. We drug his old fencing out of the barn and set it up for the beans to climb, and we hoed away encroaching weeds so that our crops could grow.
But as much as that garden flourished, Grandpa withered. Some thought that working so hard sucked the life out of him, but I saw him kneeling among tangles of pea vines and shucking back tight husks of corn to reveal golden kernels underneath. I saw him look at that garden with pride, and I know that the purpose of it helped give him a little more life than he might have otherwise had.
Most days, we worked silently together, focusing upon the plants and forgetting that he was sick. But sometimes the knowledge struck me unexpectedly. When I saw plump green worms eating away at our tomatoes, I wondered if Grandpa’s cancer were like them, slowly devouring his body even as he thrummed with life. At those times, my mind transposed a younger version of Grandpa over his gray, wrinkled form, and I saw him as he might have been years earlier – his muscles strong, covered with smooth sun-darkened skin, his face free of the lines of pain that now webbed across it.
Grandpa died that year. The brown, stalky remnants of our garden stood silent and dead outside his home as two big men carried his body away.
But I grew another garden after that. And another one after that.
Now, ten years later, my breath hisses between my teeth as I curl my bare toes against the hot ground. I use my hoe to scrape away a patch of sun-baked dirt ahead of me and quickly hop from my current location onto the cool, freshly-turned earth.
It’s almost as hot as it was that year. Almost.
Standing with both feet carefully positioned on the small patch of exposed soil, I hack at all of the weeds within reach of my hoe before using it to uncover another bit of refuge and moving further down the row of plants in my garden.
Sweat runs into my eyes, and I lick the tiny beads from my upper lip, enjoying the salty flavor of physical labor on my tongue. With one hand on my hoe’s weathered, wooden handle, I lean against it and ignore the stinging blister that has inevitably surfaced on my palm. A slight breeze teases the hair from my sticky neck.
The singular smell of hot dirt fills my nostrils, and I can hear Grandpa’s voice as I survey my garden.
“Every time you think about it, hurry up.”
I laugh, and bend back to my work.