DIRT BENEATH MY NAILS

“Why do you garden dad?”  A simple enough question you would think, I thought to myself as I asked my father.  “Because I want things to look nice.” A simple answer from a simple man. Simple in a complicated way, a  calculated and complicated silence bespoke him wherever he went.

His yard, every yard he touched, was immaculate.  The first to be pruned for the season. A power tool for pruning, absurd.  Each cut, made by hand with the attention to detail of a bonsai gardener, and the effortless precision of Edward Scissor hands.  He would stand back….examine, and the slicing of the pruning shears would resume with a militant persistence. His yard was the first to have mulch.  He would arrange weeks in advance the use of his friend Marvins truck to facilitate the logistics of the operation.

He would begin, early, of course, starting the day with a stop at White Castle for coffee.  A stop he made every single day of his waking life to my recollection. Sometimes twice or three times a day, that depended on how hard the work was that day, and my father worked hard every day, without fail.  He would pick up one load and spread. By lunch another, and if needed, another. All with the intention of wrapping up the whole job and returning the truck before dinner, as his word had indicated. Dinner was the only meal he ate most days, too busy working.  A break and a milkshake, no time for food. But hey, definitely time for another smoke, then back to working towards the always unobtainable goal of perfection.

‘Dad, you should cut your grass a little higher.  Like….three inches. Do you have a tape measure.” A reply didn’t fly out of his mouth.  I waited for a response, firm in my silence. Some people like to be right, and they want to tell you that they are right.  My Father was different. He wanted to be right, but no way was he going to argue with you about it. What is the sense in arguing with someone who’s wrong?  He would just look away, not respond, and go on being silent, and right, all by himself. This day, however, was different, a response came, and it came in the form of an answer, and a question as well.  “Yes, I have a tape measure……..but why should I cut the grass at three inches, that’s too high?” The thing is, I wouldn’t have even suggested something to a man so “yard smart” if I didn’t have an answer.  “Well,” I said as I puffed my chest like a proud rooster. “I learned in Master Gardener class that it keeps the turf a lot more green if you cut it higher. It also helps to crowd out the weeds, while reducing how much water and fertilizer you have to use.”  The day had come, that day every father dreams of, and dreads equally. The stuff that our greatest dreams are made of, and the worst of worst nightmares. The day your son educates you on something you have been doing your whole life. And the worst part is…. you recognize that they have grown to be stronger at it than you.  But through the disbelief, you forget, that you are the reason. You are the foundation, you are the peak that they set their eyes upon and said yes, there, that is the mountain that I want to climb. That is the height that I wish to reach as a gardener, as a man, as a father.

He reached up, on top of a tall narrow wood cabinet with glass doors and grabbed a tape measure, and place it into my hands.  “Here.” I gazed at it in my hand. It was old, tarnished. A Stanley tape measure, with black lettering on a yellow background.  The sticker was dusty, and the silver casing was scratched and weathered by the years. In my hand, it was heavy, cumbersome. A fifty-foot tape measure, far too large for the average homeowner, but just right for a serious working man.  The tape, leftover from his days of contracting while he was laid off from Timken. He didn’t say anything when he handed it to me.

His submission to my request was answer enough. He didn’t submit to anyone, and no request was met without a grudging tone.  So when he handed me that tape, without so much as a peep, the silence was buoyant with meaning. Then, if that wasn’t enough, out of the silence fell a question? And then after asking me that question he stood……….and listened…….to my response. And he heard me, I know he heard me because for once he responded.  He responded to my question as though I was his equal. And I felt, like a prince. The good prince, the one who gets the Kingdom. The one, the father, believes in. At that moment, a mostly silent moment. I knew that my Father believed in me. A feeling that was embossed on my soul and is still, to this very day, as I write these words, and even after he has left this earth, a great source of my pride as I continue to walk through this life.

My Father would place several large pots of Hibiscus on the patio each year like clockwork.

He already had the best yard on the street.  Hell, in the neighborhood, dollar for dollar, in the whole damn city.  But the grass though, the grass. He took my advice, rare. And the results were just as advertised.  Thick, lush, shiny green grass, as green as grass you see in Easter baskets.

That’s where this analogy ends I’m afraid.  There would be absolutely no easter egg hunts in his yard, no sir, and if at all possible no kids at all, not on the grass.  Truthfully, much less in the house. As for grandkids, he would make a very cranky exception, but “HEY! Stay out of the damn beds.”

“DaAAdDDD, why do we have to do this?”  My son asks with the squeak of privilege and an obvious and dramatic willful ignorance.  “Because we want things to look nice,” I say with a reminiscent deep breath, as though it is adequate oxygen thats necessary to serve up the memory.  “That’s stupid,” my son said. I paused, again, thinking in reverse, of the power of the silent disapproval of my Father. The piercing effectiveness of the silence, and the uneasiness it sets a boil within a young boy.  I said nothing, and I continued to pick up the limbs. He stood still and watched me continue to work. His face struck with familiar disbelief that his statement, meant to jerk me into a rage, had been met with silence, a deep echoing silence.  We had been down this road before, the verbal insults only arise because he knows the physical part of the job will not cease. No disrespectful hyperbole will end this manual labor. This work is depleting, demotivating, and laboring on the mind if you are in opposition to it, and a joy to your soul when you are not.  We were back to work, picking up sticks, twigs, branches, limbs, pieces of all sizes. “This is insane, someone needs to trim these trees.” Once more channeling my father, I bathed in silent delight over his complaint about the trees. What does he know about the trees needing to be trimmed I thought? But wait! The boy is right, I can’t believe it he is right.  The trees do need to be cut dammit, and it if wasn’t for the landlord renting us this house, they would be. No way would I walk around here with my trees looking like this. This rush of concurrence in my head was consummated by a rupture of celebration. The boy is right! My boy is right!

I know the things that my father was good at, at least the things that I recognize.  I know some other things that he failed spectacularly at as well. I wanted to climb to the same peaks that my father climbed, and when I reach the summit, I want to see what I see, not what he saw.  I want to take what he envisioned, and the little that he said, and chart my course for a higher peak. They say a man standing on the shoulders of a giant can see further than a giant can. My Father was a giant to me.  I am just trying to climb my way up his back so that I can set my course, not a better direction. A route that is built on the path that was cleared before me. Only a fool would take another way first, before fully understanding the way of our fathers.  And so I climb.

Remembering the silence of my Father, I place an armful of sticks into the pile, and I pause.  I look to my son, diligently working, ill feelings discarded in the pile along with the other debris gathered in the yard.  “You are right, these trees do need trimming.” He continues working, feverishly working towards the approaching completion of our job.  “Where did you learn that?” I ask provokingly? “You,” he said with an emphatic and sensual simplicity. We worked on for a short time longer, until the sun of the day began to cool, and the shade began to share its darkness with corners of the yard that had been forgotten all day.  “Wow,” my son said with chuckling disbelief. “That looks GREAT!” “It does……it really does. It looks really nice.”

I need the dirt beneath my nails, it reminds me that I am alive.  It reminds me that my father is not. I am still here, and he is not.  It provokes me to share the gift that is gardening and farming with my sons, with my friends, and with my family.  I hope I die with dirt beneath my nails, and I hope that this dirt grew something great. I know that the soil that I shared with my father gardening, farming with him grew something in me.  I hope to share and reap the ground while I am here. And when I am gone, and you’ve been working in the hot sun all day, and you head inside looking for a tall glass of ice cold water to quench your thirst.  As you lift your glass, I hope you think of me, when you see the dirt beneath your nails.

Aaron L. Carroll

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