Nonfiction from Kathleen Wise

Photo: Thomas Quaritsch

Tomatoes in August

Blessed is the child raised within the kingdom of a sprawling backyard. Privileged, she whose limbs grow strong with running through wild woods. Proud and mighty, she whose palms are calloused from climbing trees, shins studded with scars from the feral battlefield. Her imagination is fatted on natural spoils. Sometimes you will find her, little fairy queen, perched in the V shaped throne of a dogwood tree, surveying her land from great heights. Other times she lays low, hidden beneath the heavily draped, yellow arms of a forsythia tree. Wherever she is, she will never be found until she decides it is time.  Dusk falls, the fireflies wake, and her stomach begins to rumble just as her mother calls for her to come to dinner, followed by the inevitable slam of the screen door.

Of course I took it for granted. How could I not? I couldn’t know there were children raised on concrete, in city parks with chain link fences, indoor recess and playdates, indoor everything. How could I have known how truly lucky I was. How spoiled by the nature of my youth.

The backyard of my childhood was rambling and rich. I’ll take you there, if you don’t mind getting lost in a memory. Take my hand and follow me, this way. See the sign nailed to that walnut tree? The paint has faded on the weather beaten wood, but you can still make out the childlike cursive lettering: Primrose Path. Follow me, carefully. Watch your step for roots. Down a little ways and we’ve come to my courtyard, a clearing of moss-covered benches and stone ruins. Baths once filled with water and brightly colored fish now heaped with dirt and fool’s gold. Little graves. And here is the old chicken coop, now littered with cigarettes and scraps from a fire some bum must have made with pages torn from old paperbacks and comics. And here is the pen for Winnie, our mean old chow, broken furniture scattered about, honeysuckle branches dangling in our path. Now turn around and you’re looking across acres of woods, a gentle slope downhill. It’s August so it’s fertile now, but wait until the first snow and it will beg for a sled ride. Do you see the neon sign at the bottom? That’s the Coca-Cola plant, miles away.  No, it couldn’t be miles, but it seemed like it at the time. From here to there is an entire animal kingdom: rabbit holes, wasps’ nests, cicadas, depending on the year. Everything is blanketed in poison ivy, wild strawberries, and onion grass. Mulberry branches hang heavy with purple fruit, staining the earth below.  Endless opportunities for curiosity, tears and tummy aches.

And, of course, there was my father’s vegetable garden.

Three tiers of soil separated by carefully placed stones, like an English country garden. He was an engineer, my father, but also an artist. So there was recklessness, and there was method. He chose sensible crops to feed a family but sprinkled the seeds and bone meal like Pollack, strung the wiring in jagged rows like a Smithson earthwork installation. A child himself when his own father died, it must have been Golden, his cousin, who taught him how to garden. We would visit Golden and Grace, his wife, every summer on our road trip down to Stumpy Point, a tiny town on the sound side of the Outer Banks. Grace would wave to us from behind the screen door as we pulled into the drive, as if she’d been standing there all morning waiting for us, Bright Angel, her cockatiel perched loyally on her shoulder. She’d usher us in quickly. Don’t let the yellow flies in! They’ll eat us all! We would sit and sip lemonade and eat shortbread cookies from the blue tin. As soon as I could, I would sneak out back through the plum orchards and find Golden, working in his shed. He would smile his deep and crinkly smile, an old man now but striking and handsome with deep, knowing eyes. I remember the dirt under his fingernails and the hand with four fingers. I couldn’t take my eyes off that smooth stump of skin where his index finger had been before the accident (something to do with dynamite on a boat). The men and women of Stumpy Point were weathered and wise, salt of the earth, salt of the sea. I better understood the strength of my father by watching Golden.

My father’s father died when he was a boy. While his friends played baseball, he worked on a shrimp boat to put food on the table for his mother and little brother. In spite of the odds, he finished high school and left home for Virginia Tech, writing letters to his mother every week, sending money when he could. From there, he landed an engineering job at Procter & Gamble, way up North in the big city of Cincinnati. Always the investor, he bought a house in Kennedy Heights, rounded up a few good men, and had a regular bachelor pad, complete with silhouetted pin-up girls blowing bubbles on the bathroom walls. Every room was painted in the proper 70’s rainbow: pea green, browns, oranges, and yellows. Four hippie bachelors shared the chores, cooking strange dinners of rabbit stew and lentils, drinking cheap beer, smoking whatever they had when they had it, I imagine.

Then he met my mother. Or, as the Carolina cousins referred to her, “that Yankee woman.” Both were taking night classes for fun: Russian for him, the poetry and prose of T.S. Eliot for her. Brown haired and doe-eyed, the spitting image of young Natalie Wood. She hated to cook, but loved to talk and as opposites attract—my father was silent but a master in the kitchen—he courted her, quietly, respectably, as any good southern boy would. Perhaps she recited poetry to him. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, to be sure. In the rooms the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Naturally, it was she who suggested they get married. It made enough sense to him and like that he kicked the bachelors out and repainted the walls (the pin-up bubble girls survived: they had character) and like that, the house became a home, flowing with the laughter and tears of three little girls. My father’s daily life revolved around four women, long hours in the lab testing new soaps and detergents, and frequent business trips to India, Japan, and the Philippines. On weekday mornings, he would wake early to sit in silence and read while he sipped his black coffee. He savored those quiet, pre-dawn hours: the calm before the storm. Soon enough, three little girls would yawn awake, scramble for cereal, yell for a missing sock or help putting on boots, or cry about some minor tragedy, always running late to school.

In the evenings, after work, after a simple family dinner (stir fry, maybe, or rice and beans), a beer (Busch, in a can), he would wander out back to the garden. Twilight, his evening meditation. He needed to check on the crops for solace, if nothing else, to touch the leaves of the spinach and lettuce, inspect the beans and squash. All his other children. And the tomatoes, of course. His favorites. Not that he had favorites.

In the summer, I would watch him. I remember how those long days filled me with anxious melancholy, even as a child. Each day was an epic journey from sun up to sun down, with little definition but the placement of the sun in the sky and meal times. I longed to be doing something purposeful. I craved structure and tasks and couldn’t wait to be old enough to get a job in a restaurant or a nursing home or something where I could make myself useful. My mother told me not to be too eager, I would have my whole life to work day jobs. Enjoy childhood while you can, she would urge me. But I was restless and since television was not allowed, I took to climbing trees and watching people from far above. Silently.  I would watch my father hunched over his tomatoes, bowl in hand, gathering the sweetest ones, the ones that would fall right off into the palm of his hand. He was almost religious in his methods, as if blessing each seed planted and each tomato plucked. Gently. Whispering a quiet prayer with each turn of the wrist. I watched with a mixture of respect and impatience. He would show me. Gently, Kate. When they’re ready, they’ll just fall right into your hand. Never tug. The sweetest ones will fall right off.

I wanted to grow flowers. They’re prettier, I told him. Pretty useless, he would answer. And helpless. Pretty and helpless. That’s the worst way to be, Kate. Don’t ever envy the flowers. Squirrels come along and bite their heads off and they can’t do anything about it. But I ignored him and made my own corner plot, nestled against the side of the house. Tulips, daisies, irises, even a bleeding heart. He was right about the squirrelsThe tulips were their main target. They beheaded them like some sort of sick joke, not even bothering to eat the blooms, just leaving them lying there on the ground. A statement. Because they could. One year I even tried strawberries. Surprisingly, they blossomed and bore fruit. Five whole strawberries. Just enough to slice up on a bowl of vanilla ice cream. That was enough. With that, I understood the satisfaction that came from harvesting after the toil, the waiting, the care. Store bought spinach doesn’t hold a candle to the meaty, just-picked leaves folded into a salad before they’ve begun to wilt, tossed with a little oil and vinegar. And the vine ripened cherry tomatoes, still warm from the sun when the juice squirts onto your tongue. On hot nights in August, we ate on the screened-in porch, looking out over the garden as fireflies began to their nightly routines. He would lead us in prayer, a simple prayer: Dear heavenly Father, thank you for this food and bless it for our use, Amen. Little did I know just how blessed I was. How lucky.

§

It was another August, a few years later, when my father asked me to walk with him to his garden. We lived in a different house then, another suburb, with Victorian houses and broad streets. The yard was less wild but just as large, with plenty of room for a garden. That summer, my father spent his days on the back patio, his recliner pulled up beside the picnic table he had built just a year earlier, protected by the shade of a giant umbrella that was too heavy to lower, so it stayed up, rain or shine, mildewed and rusted. That August, he wore a heavy robe in spite of the heat. That August, he was deep into chemo and radiation, his freckly, Irish skin burned from the chemicals rather than the summer sun. I was sixteen and gangly and working on my tan, sprawled, cat-like, across the back steps in cut-offs and a bikini top, hair slicked back with Sun-In, a boom box beside me, playing Nirvana. What is that crap?  he asked. Smells Like Teen Spirit, I answered, not even bothering to open my eyes. Smells like what? Silence. Oh, never mind. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes. Hours passed. Then out of nowhere, he asked if I’d walk with him to check on the tomatoes.

Sure.

I sighed and stretched and peeled myself from the steps. I helped my giant father rise to his feet, slipped my arm through his and we walked slowly down the driveway. It might have taken hours. I was impatient.  I had things to do, things that seemed so important at the time. I had to get my daily run in before the sun set. If I didn’t run, the world might end. At the very least, my thighs would begin to touch and I couldn’t have that. I would have to run in the dark. That would be okay, too. But still, my skin itched and I slouched with teenage angst. I needed to run. I needed to get away. So when he tugged against me, his pace quickening ever so slightly when he saw his tomatoes in the near distance, I let him go, unlocking my arm from his. I let him take a few steps forward without me. I knew he wanted to, even if just to prove to me that he could. In one heavy moment, a suspended moment that might have been years in guilt, I turned my head towards a sudden peal of laughter from the neighbor’s yard. A turn of the head and a snapping of twigs and a low groan from below. My father had fallen and there he sat in the grass, whispering to himself, mumbling. What? A prayer? A curse? The sun beat upon his thighs, naked, exposed, white flesh. A sight never intended for a daughter. His bathrobe fell open, undone, his eyes searching for answers, like an infant, the whole world confusing and cruel.

I fell to my knees, reaching for him. He pushed me away and lowered his eyes, muttering. I could not recognize this voice, low and guttural. A groaning giant felled at my feet. The same man who had swung me over his shoulders for years now lay crumbled under his own useless limbs. I reached for him again. He pushed me away. Again. I stood and waited. Silently, I begged for patience. He struggled, rocking his body forward and back for momentum. Then nothing.  Defeat. Stillness. Then another try. Beads of sweat on his brow, his muscles clenched. Stillness again, his eyes lowered, avoiding my own. I stared at my father, a proud man defeated, the August sun devouring his skin. I did not stare with compassion, or pity. I was annoyed. I was impatient. I had more important things to do than stare in contempt at my father’s pale thighs. This is what I was thinking when his eyes rose to meet mine and I saw his plea for help. A man defeated. My eyes lowered then, as I lifted him, as he allowed me to lift him, no longer pushing me away. A stubborn man too tired to fight anymore, asking for salvation but not ready for it, not at all. A fire burned in the muscles of my back as I lifted a man twice my size. Gently. Gently. His weight released against me and we took one step. Then another. Baby steps, my arm slipped through his, like a mother and child. Silence.

What was he thinking? I wonder now. Was he thinking, like I was, that this was just another frustrating day, one of many, that would fade with time. We would forget this ever happened, it simply wouldn’t matter, once he was healthy again and back to work. Once he was back to testing the latest stain remover on Mom’s blouses, telling me to hurry up and get a move on! when I was running late for a soccer game. Once he was back in his garden planting next year’s seedlings or gathering cherry tomatoes in a bowl, popping a few in his mouth as he walked along, not needing me or anyone for balance. Once I was back in school, worried about impressing some boy, worried about my acne, my outfit, my grades, my calories. Once he was just Dad again. Or did he know something I didn’t. Did he know this was the last August? The last of the tomatoes. Our last walk in the garden. His garden. His daughter. His last. And had I known, would I have done things differently? Would I have held each moment in the palm of my hand with the tenderness it deserved? Like a single cherry tomato, warmed in the August sun?

Gently.

.

.

Kathleen Wise is a writer, performer, and visual artist. She has worked in theaters all across the country as well as in many independent films, TV, and web series. Her directorial film debut, Sanctuary, premiered at the Montana Film Festival 2017, and her feature screenplay A Round Tuit was short listed for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Kathleen earned her MFA from NYU Graduate Acting, and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she spent a year abroad studying dance in Paris and West African dance and art in Senegal. She continually seeks opportunities for collaboration with artists, in multi-disciplinary work and as both a performer and creator. Kathleen is Brooklyn-based, in theory, currently living on the road from one gig to the next, traveling abroad whenever possible. She is also a painter, singer, and cellist. To view her work, please visit kathleenwise.squarespace.com and follow @kafaweenwise.

5 Comments

  1. eve says:

    Kathleen ….i so remember…and do think you captured the life of the moment..but like any serious artist and loving daughter…so hard on one’s self

  2. My sweet savage sister
    So brave to divulge these vivid and powerful memories of our papa
    Love and peace

  3. Warren Sapp says:

    Tears in my eyes, my nose stinging, but I can still type. And if I waste my time to analyze what you’ve written, I would not change one little thing of it. This is scripture. And God is here revealed in all of it; the wild places, the gardens, the family — all of you — the remembering. My heart and my mind are touched, my body announces it, and I want you to know that. And I embrace that sweet intimacy, as do so many here.

  4. Sheila GOLDEN says:

    Kathleen what a wonderful tribute to your Dad and mine…I remember those visits well.

  5. George Schober says:

    Kathleen, this is lovely. Rod was a wonderful man, and you’ve captured him beautifully (and painfully).

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