My neighbor Jack is 90. Every morning he is up earlier than me. Out walking. Out puttering in the backyard. Out being productive. Every evening his garage is still open hours after mine has closed. He might be in the garden re-rigging his drip system. Or in the front, trimming the edges of a lawn I’m not entirely sure he can see.
My favorite it is coming home from work to hear him blasting music and nowhere to be found. It’s usually old timey stuff like Frank Sinatra. His wife apologizes for the volume. He’s hard of hearing, she says. I don’t care, I tell her. It makes me happy.
Last fall Jack planted two saplings. At the time, I thought it was odd to put them in the ground right before the frost came. But he’s been at this whole gardening thing a lot longer than me. The trees are in full bloom right now. The other night D mentioned how great it was that Jack planted them even though he will probably never witness them in their prime. I hate thinking that. Even if it’s true.
Jack is my pal I talk to across the fence. We trade stories about the happenings in our gardens. He tells me he is my back up water man if I ever need one. He advises me on pest management. He has offered to help prune my apple tree. Just let him know, he will bring the shears. Jack tells me he enjoys seeing life in our planter beds. I don’t think the previous renters gardened. When we arrived the beds were a mess of rotting gourds and sun-dried soil. I think all that wasted opportunity bothered him.
Last year I got a late start on planting. My corn and tomatoes were a weak harvest at best. One evening I boiled a dozen baby ears of corn, slathered them in butter, and pretended they didn’t taste a little bitter. To avoid a similar scenario, I planted early this spring. All three beds are filled with spinach, chard, arugula, carrots, onions, kohlrabi and potatoes in various stages. Inside we have cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers occupying all southern windows and benches. Until recently, I was eager to show Jack my progress.
I held off after he confessed he was growing weary. He admitted he felt tired and that the garden is a lot of work. I tried to laugh it off and tell him he will play the role of director this year instead. Still, it upset me when I saw his sons and granddaughters out pruning his apple tree a few weeks later.
It made me think about how strange it must be for him to watch me come home from work, pull on my gardening gloves and head out back to mess around for a few hours. His backyard operation is slow and steady. Mine is erected using short bursts of hard labor. While he is precise with his plantings, I plant more than I need and still manage to come up short. For instance, Jack is still eating carrots he planted last year. A little hay helped them winter underground. Meanwhile in March, I turned over three rows of rotting carrots I never pulled before the freeze.
You would think that gardening would better prepare me for changes in the cycle of life. That nurturing something from seed to fruit to compost would allow me to accept that people eventually slow down too. It hasn’t. I keep wondering if maybe there is a way I can improve the soil. I wonder if Jack feels similarly.
Months ago he bought an adult tricycle at a yard sale, thinking he would repair it and cruise around town like he used to. But it hasn’t moved from his back patio. Over the weekend D swiped it and gave it a complete overhaul. I came back from a run to find Jack in our driveway watching D make the final repairs. “I can’t find the words to describe how I feel,” he said. He couldn’t stop saying thank you.
A few hours later D told me he watched Jack take his first ride from the front window. He struggled to turn the pedals. The one gear was just too hard to turn. Jack got off and pushed it down the street until D couldn’t see him anymore.