By David M. Ross
Dad was my first hero and to this day remains at the top of the list. For 91 years his life experiences and friendships extended to many people and places. He was a man who loved cultivating the fertile soil of both relationships and gardens. Although he’s gone, the memories of his life and the examples he left behind live on as priceless treasures.
Good and Loving Dad
Dad was a farm boy raised on the rich, black soil of Western Ohio. His beginnings were humble—the youngest in a family of eight children. He was 10 years old when the Great Depression hit, and life became tough for a period of years—so tough the family lost the farm that had been paid for with honest hard work and lots of sweat. Granddad was a generous man and had cosigned for younger farmers. Then the Depression took it all away. The family moved into a small house in town, and in the next few years Dad attended eighth grade three times. It had nothing to do with intelligence. He was an excellent student. His parents simply couldn’t afford the cost of public high school, which was supported by tuition in those days.
Finally funds were available to attend high school, and Dad graduated the oldest in his class. Marriage followed a year later. With intelligence, hard work, and a supportive wife, he was a success.
In his 91 years he lived a life of significance and is remembered by many as a much-loved minister. That’s not how I remember him. To me he was just Dad, but he was a good and loving dad. He taught his family by example and expected the best from us. And he loved his large garden—something he learned from his parents, and they no doubt from theirs.
Cool, Black Earth
In the days of my childhood we lived on a small farm near Elida, Ohio—acreage that Dad and Mom purchased in their desire to return to agrarian life and raise their children with dirt under their fingernails. We owned an old Ford Tractor 9N in those days, and it was used to plow and disk the large garden. How I loved to feel the cool, black earth under my bare feet as I followed the plow, picking up night crawlers. Then a couple days later Dad would disk the garden, and I’d run around in the soft soil like a calf let out in the springtime, falling face down and breathing in the scent of the good earth.
Once the ground was prepared, Dad would take the old high-wheel hand cultivator, bolt the row-making attachment onto it, and make perfectly straight rows. “You choose a point at the other side of the garden,” he’d say, “and you aim for it. Don’t take your eyes off that spot. That’s how you make a straight row.” Then he’d tell us how many seeds to drop and how far to space them, while he followed us with a garden rake and carefully covered them.
Later as the garden crops grew, we’d need to cultivate the soil and hoe the weeds. As a boy I always used the hoe with the broken handle. It fit my short stature. Dad didn’t throw things away. He believed in repairing them—except for the old hoe. It stayed small for small people. And I remember the old ax. He’d hold it up and say, “Yep, it’s the same old ax. Only changed the head twice and the handle three times, but it’s still the same old ax.” And then he’d grin. I liked the way he thought.
The garden was the one thing Dad could not give up, even as his health slowly declined with age. For a while the garden was reduced in size, and then reduced some more. At that point we helped him with it. He did what he could, but hoeing and cultivating were left to younger hands and stronger hearts.
Finally his small garden patch became a lawn, and the final years of gardening took place in the flower bed beside the back patio. There three tomato plants grew proudly under his watchful eyes, with rhubarb growing nicely beside them. At least it was something. It was still a reminder of the simpler days as a boy on the farm, and his days of raising enough garden produce to feed his own family of six boys through the summer and winter. It was also the annual yearning to work in the soil, to cooperate with God and the good earth to raise nutritious food. It’s an itch that must be scratched.
As he grew older, Dad could have easily purchased vegetables from the local stands—and he did at times. But when you grow it yourself—when you lovingly plant it and tend it—the flavor always seems better and the satisfaction is at least doubled. Nothing is as tasty as a fresh tomato warmed by the sun, harvested by our own hands, cut into thick, juicy slices, and placed between pieces of bread that’s been spread with mayonnaise. Fresh sweet corn—I can still remember Dad sinking his teeth into the first roasted ears of the season, slathered generously with real butter and sprinkled lightly with salt, the appearance of near ecstasy on his face. The happy sigh. “This is food fit for kings,” he’d say.
The old Ford tractor was sold many years ago, but it was my good fortune to purchase another one for my use as a family man with children who needed to experience the joy of gardening. And it is still my practice to use the old hand cultivator, not only to make rows but later to bolt on the cultivating attachment and periodically cultivate the garden.
Rototillers are fine. Most people choose to use them. I don’t. It’s more enjoyable to get a good, hard workout while pushing an engineless machine. Step, then push. Step, then push. Listening to the cultivator digging its way through the soil and watching the small weeds give way to the progress is a very satisfying experience. Even better, I can sense Dad’s blood running through my veins when I push the cultivator like he did, and I experience a bond with the generations of my ancestors who have done it just like this through the many years past.
The satisfaction is all the more pleasant when the work is completed, and I can sit in the shade of the old hickory tree, with a golden retriever happily stretched out beside me, and a tall glass of cold mint tea in my hand—tea that was harvested from the sizable wild patch in the pasture down by the creek. That’s when I think about the goodness of life and the many gifts I’ve been given. And I think about Dad. This love of gardening is a gift he gave me, and it keeps on giving. Some day I’ll be the old man whose garden will be reduced to several tomato plants. That’s all right. I know how this works because I watched a good man gracefully accept all that God handed him, and I watched his grateful heart as he handed it down to us. Thank you, Dad, for leading the way.
Dave Ross is a CNC programmer and a Mennonite who lives and works in Kidron, Ohio.
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