Two weeks ago I sent my grampa a package containing seeds: two types of tomatoes, a few kernels of corn, and an envelope for growing cucumbers. I thought he might enjoy taking care of something again.
Growing up, when we visited my grandparents’ house we inevitably did three things: explore the basement, walk to the beach, and poke around the backyard. Their basement had the best smell—a mixture of laundry, old tools, and darkness. Matty would rifle through grampa’s workspace, lifting old mayonnaise jars filled with nails, bolts, and washers; picking up hammers too big to swing. Grampa was the expert of heavy things. A career machinist, he engineered clever fixes to broken locks and creaky doors. He had a solution for any problem.
Their house was one block from the beach. It is where my mom learned to swim and my nana would paddle across the channel and back. In 30 years, I have never seen anyone else attempt it. The shipyard where grampa worked was a few blocks further and the site that produced many of the boats that served in WWII. His name is still etched in one of the bells. The beach smelled of the soap factory down the channel. It was where I collected seashells and talked about boys with my sister.
My grandparents’ backyard is small. There is just enough room for a long table and a half dozen folding chairs. Wild roses grow along the fence. Grampa used to grow tomatoes along the strip of grass separating the neighbor’s yard. Big red tomatoes used for sauce. He was always really proud of those tomatoes. I don’t really remember when he stopped growing them. But it’s been years.
This is my second season as a gardener. All south-facing windowsills in my house are currently occupied by tomato, pepper or cucumber starts. It will be several more weeks before it’s safe to put them outside. I’m wondering if staking the cucumbers inside is a bit much. I still have envelopes of seeds with no purpose in the garage.
Every Sunday I call my grampa. On a good day we chat for at least eight minutes. On a bad day it’s anything less. The day I made the seed package we had spoken for just six. It was the first time he had to ask who he was talking to. In the note, I explained how deep and how far apart to space the plants. I ended the note with the most important detail—don’t forget to water them. Don’t forget. That is my hope.
These days, grampa no longer makes anything in the basement. He gave away many of his tools. It’s a fact that sometimes is forgotten. I can’t recall the last time he walked to the beach. Or even to the end of the street. He doesn’t really watch the Red Sox anymore. Lately he likes to stare out the window and watch the birds. Part of me wishes I could follow his thoughts. I wonder where they fly off to.
Last weekend I was back home for my sister’s baby shower. Grampa helped make necklaces of paper clips and string for a game. Dozens of people came, ate, watched Jen open gifts, and left. After the guests dispersed, I sat next to grampa in the breakfast nook. He lifted one of the necklaces and frowned.
“You made that,” I said.
He didn’t remember. I am hoping his garden will be different. It arrived the other day. (He didn’t remember that either.) But I am hoping having a garden again will allow him to track change—and progress—over time. I am hoping the seeds might be a good daily project for him. That if he sees the starts sitting out on his kitchen table they will remind him to participate in this life. That they will eventually compel him to go out into the backyard and try to coax into being.