Baba

Baba is leaning over our backyard fence. We are talking tomatoes.

Baba lives next door with her son Richard, his wife Mary, and their nine children. Like my two grandmothers, she lives upstairs and her son and his family live downstairs.

If these three women were alive today, they would, more than likely, be in “assisted living” and this story would end right here. I wouldn’t know the aroma of their cooking. I wouldn’t know some of the secrets that enabled them to live so long and still smile. I wouldn’t know their gentleness and kindness and neither would you or anyone else.

I have never visited a nursing or assisted living home (whose living isn’t assisted by someone?) where I felt a sense of joy when I walked in. I suppose such places exist but not in my experience. My experience is sadness, resignation and death’s footman at the door with that evil smile. What I immediately notice is the upturned faces saying, “Hello, remember me? Are you here to visit me? You look so familiar. And then, inevitably, they look down again as you walk by. In a few months they won’t bother to look up at all.

Full disclosure # 1: My father died in a nursing home at age 90.

Full disclosure # 2: I will die in my garden, not in a nursing home. There is nothing ‘inevitable’ about going to a nursing home outside of the willingness of people to forgo learning from the wisdom of a lifetime.

Yes, I know how difficult and unpleasant it can be to be old and how difficult and unpleasant caring for the elderly can be. But consider what we lose for the sake of ease and comfort.

I have a dishwasher. When you have a dishwasher, you lose the joy of washing dishes by hand. You don’t notice the favorite plate that your daughter gave you or the mug you purchased when you went to California with that person who no longer loves you. If you have a clothes dryer, you never have the experience of hanging clothes out to dry in the sun and wind and how they feel when you bring them in. You lose the experience of someone shouting “rain” followed by a mad dash to get the clothes off the line as quickly as possible, popping clothespins as you go. You don’t even know what clothespins are!

Life is easier but, in many ways, poorer.

I know, I know, it just has to be done. It’s too difficult. They will get better care. I have my own life. And on and on. The “benefits to aggravation ratio” has been calculated and the answer is clear and works for you. But what works for me sometimes and what works for you sometimes doesn’t always work for others. Some factors are left out and some added. Not that we should care. It’s a simple calculation for chrissakes! Stop bugging me.

The fence Baba is leaning on separates our family from the Terepkas. The weight of anyone else leaning on this fence would break it but Baba is a wisp of an old woman. Eight kids on our side of the fence and nine on the Terepka’s side. Both of our fathers are drinkers and our mothers, while saintlike, are not saints. Baba is the real saint.

Baba is wearing a dress, a soiled apron, and an almost toothless smile. She wears these items every day, especially the smile. The smile disappears only when she is yelling at her son, Richard. In a few years, Richard will die in a fire that starts when he falls asleep while smoking in bed. Nine children will be without a father, but Baba is there.

As I said, Baba and I are talking tomatoes. I am nine years old and she is over a hundred to my way of thinking. She leans over and holds up one of her tomatoes for me to see and I hold up one of mine. We make an exchange and both bite into the gifted tomato. No salt shaker (which I would never do without these days) but we didn’t need salt then to enhance the flavor of the tomato or the moment.

Baba smiles at me and remarks that my tomato is excellent as the juice runs down her chin and onto her apron. In that moment, Baba lit a fire for gardening and growing tomatoes that has never gone out.
In my greenhouse today, some 60 years later, there are 72 tomato seedlings in potting trays. There are at least seven different varieties, mostly heirlooms. In Baba’s day we did not know “heirloom” even though Baba herself was an heirloom. We knew tomato, “Burpee’s Big Boy”, “Beefsteak” and “Roma Plum”.

Few pleasures can complete with biting into a tomato picked right off the vine from your own garden. It’s like heaven (okay, heaven is probably a lot bigger and better but you get the idea). When you are nine years old and an old woman who grows good tomatoes tells you that yours are delicious, that you’ve done a good job, it’s transformative. It adds an unconsidered factor to the previously calculated “benefits to aggravation ratio” and tips the scale to having the old live nearby, perhaps even upstairs.

My garden consisted of a small patch of dirt between the garage and fence. It might have been all of 40 square feet. Baba’s garden wasn’t much bigger. I would dig it up with a pitchfork, break the clumps with a hoe, and rake it smooth. I would sometimes save the worms in a tin can on the off chance that my dad would take us fishing. More often than not, that tin can became their burial place.

Into that tilled and fertile soil, I would cut straight rows with my fingers and drop in all the tomato seeds I had. Carefully closing the dirt over the seeds, I would add the hopes of a young boy that his life would work out. I had no concept of thinning. (I still have only a mild acquaintance with thinning things out.) In a week or so, with an advertised 90% germination rate, I would have a difficult time listening to Baba as she encouraged (not told) me to pull out some of the smaller seedlings.

As I was writing this, I began to think that my youth was nothing but a “frost of care” in the same sense that Chidiock Tichborne viewed his youth in his most famous poem “Written on the Eve of Execution”. He saw his youth as a frost of care and a dish of pain. Granted he was about to be executed and perhaps this soured him a bit. My youth, while sometimes frosty and painful (who escapes such things?), was made easier by growing and harvesting tomatoes.

Chidiock, now there’s a name for you, was only 24 years old in 1586 when he was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his role in the Catholic Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. I submit that he might never have found himself in such a dire situation (and that is clearly textbook dire) had he grown tomatoes or grown anything. Or, perhaps closer to the truth, if he hadn’t been a Catholic.

Like most plotters, Chidiock was trying to save someone or something. People who are trying to save you are annoying at best and, at their worst, will actually kill you to save you. History provides a sufficiently large number of examples.

Anais Nin (another beautiful name) said, “You cannot save people. You can only love them.” Planting and growing has saved me more times than I can count. I hold Baba largely responsible for saving my life in this way. But, in truth, it wasn’t Baba per se, it was Baba’s love.

If preservation of self is the first law of nature, and the natural world provides a large number of examples, how does one get beyond self-preservation and self-centeredness? What makes an old woman befriend a young boy? In the most extreme example, how do you explain an individual who sacrifices his life in order to save a complete stranger?

The answer, it seems to me, is that sometimes when we look at another person, there is an intuitive, split-second moment where we see ourself and the other as one. There is no thought, there is only recognition. In the extreme case of saving a stranger’s life, the individual is, in fact, saving himself. Baba knew, as grandparents often do, that I was a worried, frightened little boy and, perhaps, saw in me something of her own childhood self.

In the past few weeks, I have planted rhubarb, Jerusalem artichoke, Solomon’s seal, mulberry trees, paw paw trees, apple trees and peach trees. That’s all good but the pièce de résistance of every spring planting is tomatoes. I do not plant the tomatoes by myself. We, Baba and I, plant tomatoes like we have been doing for 60 plus years. That is what love can do.

In some future Spring, I will die in the garden. I will die in Springtime because sadness is easier in the Spring than it is in the other seasons. This, of course, assumes that some people will be sad at my passing. Regardless, I have generated more than my fair share of sadness in life and do not want to add unnecessarily to the load on my way out.

I will be buried in the graveyard at the Plumsted Meeting House (Quakers). I will be buried inside the stone wall and not outside the wall like those horse thieves, the Doan Brothers. When I am buried, I want tomato seeds sprinkled on top of my grave.

Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family of plants. As we sometimes need shade from the day’s sun so we sometimes need shade from the night’s darkness. Baba provided shade in the sometime darkness of my youth.

I want to rest under night shade as I did as a child.