I once saw a home movie – previously a silent film, transposed to video – of my maternal grandfather, “Tappy,” feeding me strawberries from his garden. I was less than a year old, in a frilly white dress with barely any hair, sitting barefoot in his lap on the ground. With each attempted bite, his arm around me, Tap looked at the camera and through a grinning mustache mouthed something unintelligible. He delighted in sharing my first taste of strawberry. I waved my pudgy hands, grimaced, and went back for another savory nibble. He wore a blue handkerchief to keep the sweat from his eyes, square framed gold glasses, a clean white t-shirt, and shorts made from an aging pair of jeans (which I have since inherited, and continue to wear when I garden). A giant in my eyes, measuring at least 6’4″, Tap was a man of stature and pride, and gardening became his passion during his well-deserved retirement. That day in the strawberry patch, I believe I absorbed my grandfather’s love of the Earth when I consumed that first strawberry.
Tap was forever tending his various gardens. Rows of corn, potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, onions, green beans, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables sustained us throughout the winter months. After our Monday night catechism class, my parents, brothers, sister, and I would often go for dinner at my grandparent’s house. There was always something yummy and home grown, and Tap would say, “You know this is from our garden, girl.” In the summer, he hung baskets of flowers from the porch ceiling. We spent sunset evenings waiting patiently for the hummingbirds to dazzle us with their minute dances in search of food, with the cacophonic bug zapper clamoring in the background. Such magic he shared with us. He had peach trees, apple trees, and strawberry beds. I remember the scent from the magnolia tree behind the house, and two monstrous evergreens in the front (a husband-wife pine set) where he placed bird feeders. Many of my childhood memories of staying at their house include playing in those pines, bird watching from the dining room window, and learning the names of the various annuals he and Gram chose each spring.
Tap’s love for growing and tending life extended beyond his passion for gardening. He used to say, “Girl, I’d chop both my arms off if you asked me to.” And he would. We all believed him, me and his other 9 grandchildren. Not if we needed him to – if we wanted him to. He could have been described as enmeshed, overpowering, overzealous, patriarchal, controlling. But I know better. He was a Hemingway. He had a deep and abiding passion for us all- ten grandchildren, three beautiful daughters and their husbands. He only wanted to tend us, help us navigate through life and grow prosperous and strong. Tap’s familiarity with life’s difficulties only supplanted his lust for life. He came from a coal mining patch, where his family was the first to have an ice box and a car. As a boy, he witnessed the death of his young two-year-old brother, and his mother’s grief, which was undoubtedly masked by German brawn. His school propelled him to the 8th grade without his attending the 7th because, as he wryly put it, “They just wanted to get me out faster because I started so much trouble!” He worked his way out of poverty to provide a pampered way of life for his daughters, working at a young age as a coal miner and eventually a mine inspector. He witnessed, lived, and preached, “You reap what you sow.” In 1992, on a fortuitous May 29, I graduated valedictorian, primarily because of his encouragement and influence. He sat beaming with pride in the front of the audience, larger than life in his white suit, bushy eyebrows, and trademark mustache. I dedicated my speech to him, and wished him a happy birthday in front of the community who watched his family blossom. It was the greatest gift I would ever bestow him.
In May, I plant baskets of annuals, a cascade of sunflowers for an outdoor hideaway, a few perennials about the yard, and a garden that cannot begin to rival my grandfather’s. I wear those faded, more-holes-than-jean cutoff shorts, enjoying the sensation of the ground in my nails, dirt glued by sweat to my arms and legs. With each plant and seedling gently placed into my small piece of earth, I close my eyes and imagine the unseen tendrils of his love as it vines about me and my children. My sons don handkerchiefs as they hoe away weeds, and my daughter eagerly awaits for the trench before she delicately places a watermelon seed. Each time I water the flowers, prune the roses, weed the gardens, or harvest a vegetable, I reunite with my grandfather. His love of life is his greatest legacy, planted in the dirt like the weed seeds that blow all about and find a home in anyone’s backyard.
By Corby Caffrey-Dobosh