All this world is God’s own field . . .
Raise the song of harvest-home.
—Henry Alford, “Come, Ye Thankful People Come”
Early July, four weeks to the day before my mother died quietly in her nursing home bed while Dad performed a funeral across town, my dad expressed the secret desire of his unsanctified heart. In the big-top camp-meeting tent, crowded with four hundred saved souls, many having grown up or old in churches he’d led, Dad accepted a plaque given in special recognition for sixty-three years of pastoral service. Weak from coughing spasms, he gave exceptionally brief unprepared remarks—his life story reduced to fit a short form.
Back on the Pennsylvania-Deutsch dairy farm the August after graduating from high school, he’d been called by God who demanded allegiance by asking only one question: Will you preach? Afraid to say no, my dad enrolled in college, within three weeks boarding a train that took him away from the farm, to the mission field of New York State, ready for plowing and someday harvest.
“God asked me to preach,” Dad told the assembled, visibly respectful of his patriarchal stature among them. “And I said yes. God has blessed my ministry.” He paused. I don’t know if his next comment was prompted by fever or humility or pride for his sacrificial obedience. Rather abruptly he concluded: “But I always wanted to be a farmer.” That statement hung in the air until deadened by applause. Dad turned and shuffled toward the platform stairs.
Dad was obviously sick that night with bronchitis diagnosed the next day. Before the sermon started, he and I left. I drove him an hour home, to his own bed.
I stayed up awhile, straightening his house, wondering if this admission that he only ever wanted to be a farmer would be the last thing he would ever say to such a large in-gathering of people he’d known as parishioners, his harvest.
My father always had “the conventional hobbies of a [German] country parson—bees and roses.” 1 But then there was the vegetable garden, which seemed so much more than an avocation. It supplemented his meager income. But it was also recreation in both the popular and the redemptive sense. The most ancient of stories with a positive twist: Adam tilling outside Eden but enjoying the sweat. (How many times did we hear his garden motto? The only difference between a golf club and a hoe is one’s attitude.) Cain raising crops, as an acceptable gift.
No matter where his pastoral vocation called him—country, city, suburb—Dad found a large vacant lot of lawn or weeds to plow under and plant in long straight rows, ordered in relation to the sun (the corn stalks must not overshadow the tomatoes) and surrounded by winter-squash vines prone to wander outside the frame.
It was not Eden, except in his view. On summer Sundays, Dad walked his garden in the heat of the day. “Want to check the garden with me?” he asked my older brother, Bud, as we pushed back from the dining room table. We girls would clamor to come along. But Mom had other plans. “Not until the dishes are done.” Mother couldn’t postpone Sunday’s only chore by half an hour. And only occasionally did Dad stay his garden stroll to include us all.
Characteristically, Dad and gloating Bud turned their backs on kitchen cleanup and went out the door. Vegetable by vegetable, father and son surveyed the scene. Carrots, beets, onions, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, chard, green beans, yellow peppers, melons, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, acorn and Hubbard squash. Bud tells me they walked in silence, unless Dad noted worthy growth—the first tomato blossoms, corn silk, melon balls—or explained a tactile lesson. Picking up and squeezing a fistful of dirt, he’d judge its water content. Too wet if it clung together. Just right if it crumbled. Too dry if a hard clump wouldn’t budge. Once, and only once, Bud uprooted a thorn. The reprimand was soft, the commandment clear: “No, Son. We do not pull weeds on Sunday.”
Having twice walked the garden’s length, Dad affirmed the handiwork. “Nice garden, isn’t it?”
Yes, good and very good. The ritual inspection complete, he headed back to the house for his long Sabbath nap, nodding off to visions of color-filled Ball jars lined along cellar shelves. Seriously overweight in his prime, Dad loved to sit with his family and consume the tasteful bounty, but for him the great joy of farming—reduced by circumstances to vegetable gardening and fruit gathering—was the process: plowing, planting, hoeing, picking, or digging. And the proud presenting: to Mom, his chief cook and canner, and then to his dinner guests, his outback neighbors, his roadside customers.
Though he welcomed, even required, help from all us children, the garden was his domain. Mother herself came out only for major tomato or bean harvests—or to pick cucumbers the morning she brewed pickle brine.
From his father he’d learned to hoe a straight seed-row, and every spring he eagerly passed along the lesson. The secret was not in the wrist as much as in the eye. You don’t look down or back; you look up. Pick a target spot—a stone, a stick, a pail—at the far end of the row. Set the hoe handle on your hip, dig the head into the dirt, press hard, and march for the mark. He modeled and explained this trench-making technique without ever handing over the hoe. We watched from the unplowed edge, stepping up to participate later in the planting: dropping seeds—not too few, not too many, the measure differing from row to row—into the open ditch before he filled it back in, tamping seed and soil.
For plants started indoors—tomatoes and cabbage—Dad wielded the shovel himself, digging round holes, expecting a child at hand to pour into each a dipperful of water, and another on top of the tucked-in roots.
In July he tasked us with weeding the immature carrots, beets, and beans, close in, where an undiscriminating hoe would take all. Every year he retaught the old lessons as if they were new. Kneeling, never sitting or squatting, he distinguished bad from good, weed from seed, in biblical language, tare from wheat. Pull the root; don’t just snap the top.
All this, just the prelude to the sun’s ripening: its manufacture of colorful balls and beans (some hidden under wraps), its sprawling leaves and crispy stalks and buried roots. Dad hoed, prayed for moderate rain, and measured weekly growth, till at last he could gather in his ripe harvest. Picking, digging. Such tangible, practical rewards.
When busy in his vocational prime, he left the shucking and snapping, peeling and chopping to the women. But as his church ministry wound down—with we daughters grown, Mother’s vision failing, his free hours weighing—he took to cleaning and paring. Cutting corn off the cob. Stripping elderberries from the pod. Chopping onions, without tears, as if they were turnips.
Until I was forty, I remember few contented hours alone with Dad—except for our annual Labor Day blackberry picking in the woods. And one clear day, the first week in July. He was about seventy. I, thirty-five. Attending camp meeting, he’d had a heart spell that landed him in the hospital overnight. I was on hand when he was discharged, and I drove him back home. In the afternoon, he and I sat on the front stoop shelling a peck of green peas, until the bottom of my right thumb was sore. Surely I, not he, still recuperating, had picked the peas—with leaf lettuce and radishes his first fruits—though I don’t remember that solitary work. Just the hour with him, quiet enough to hear the sound of the popping seams. A harvest in hand, he was at peace.
That evening, Mom boiled a pot of the bright peas, then poured off the water, added milk, reheated, with lots of black pepper. Better than holiday fireworks.
Even as Mom’s eyesight, long-patience, and culinary touch deteriorated, even when her massive stroke swept her from the house, leaving Dad to get meals for himself, he never discovered the joy of cooking the fruits of his labor. He still wanted to—and did—plant a garden big enough to feed the whole hamlet. He gave the food away to neighbors and us children. In this autumn season of life, his delight was in the harvest. He found little taste in the bounty when eating it alone. And that lack of sensual satisfaction contributed to his lack of vision for learning any new tasks in the kitchen—a woman’s domain. This meat-and-potatoes man resisted knowing how easy it was to soften a root tuber. “I hardly ever eat potatoes anymore,” he told me, a bit mystified with himself. He who had modeled for me expert hoeing techniques now turned his back on my repeated lessons in baking potatoes in the microwave. “Don’t worry about me. I eat when I’m hungry. I know how to make oatmeal” slathered with honey.
In July, the rainy morning after I brought bronchial Dad home from camp meeting, I ventured down into the basement. Over in the north corner, I found two old crocks and two white plastic buckets. This time of year they should have been empty, the contents simmered into winter stews or roasted with Sunday beef. But this was not a normal year. In the containers I discovered the rotten remnants of last fall’s harvest. Onions, carrots, potatoes, apples. I rummaged a little, reclaiming a usable onion or two. I smelled and winced and groaned. The sprouted, rubbery, root vegetables could wait for a week, till my brother came to visit. The apples required immediate attention; they were soft as sauce and feeding broods of fruit flies.
Because Dad wasn’t aware of the problem, I figured it just as well if I didn’t explain my solution. While he slept, I slipped back downstairs and then outdoors. In the shed I found a shovel, and in the rain and garden mud—between rows of thorny raspberry bushes, fruit not ripe—I buried what had once been a half-peck of red apples.
I didn’t expect to visit him—and Mother—again until Labor Day, when I anticipated cooking him up a hearty stew from new potatoes and tomatoes and carrots. But then Mother died, in the heat of the summer, just as the garden was coming on. For five days, as July turned to August, the house was a flurry. The phone busy. The beds full. The table laden—thanks to the generosity of neighbors returning the favor of food. Given out raw in baskets, given back cooked in casseroles.
Three hundred people came to Mother’s midweek service, blowing Dad’s theory that people go to funerals only for the young. I’m not sure they came to pay respects to Mother, as much as they were there to show the Reverend that his sixty-three years in New York State had produced a fit harvest.
By Thursday night, the crowd had emptied out, with only my younger brother and me staying on a few days at Dad’s house. Friday morning, over bowls of sweet oatmeal, we three discussed the day’s schedule and tasks. Dad had to read Scripture and pray at a funeral in town. Not for a churchgoer, but his mechanic.
“Dad, you could have said no,” I scolded. “You’re carrying your own grief right now. You’re tired and stressed.” And old. “No one would expect you to serve at a funeral the same week as Mom’s . . .”
“I just have to do this—for that family,” he retorted. A widow and sons so close to the kingdom. Suddenly Dad changed the subject, or maybe he got us back on track, to the day’s agenda. “This afternoon when I get home, I want to go pick blueberries,” the week’s ripe fruit. There weren’t any bushes in his own yard, but he knew exactly where to find them, ten miles away. “You kids come along and help?”
Sure. For the lesson. For the fruit. For the harvest-home ride.
Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table, 52 anecdotal meditations that gently, humorously invite readers to welcome mealtime guests (Upper Room Books). She is an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts, and her personal essays have appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and US Catholic.