The water runs clear over the bunch of green onions as I slice the root ends, slide the outer green shoots smoothly over the white tubes, and slide away the silky casings. Bare of clumps of mud that would suggest a recent tug of war with the wet ground, these are pre-cleaned onions I found this morning in the vegetable aisle neatly piled between the green leaf lettuce and the parsley. Instead of pulling them from a warm garden bed, I plucked the bunch from its nesting place, setting off a playful tumble toward the parsley. They had rolled into each other piling up into a suitable presentation thanks to the thin rubber bands that squeezed their ends together. I easily picked them from the shelf, placed them in my cart… then paused with them while I thought of Dad.
Yesterday Mom’s phone call set off my emotional alarm bells as she shared her concerns.
“Maybe he won’t put in a garden this year. It’s so hard for Dad to get going, to kneel down and get back up. I think he’s not doing it because he’s worried he’ll fall over.”
“Mom, without a garden Dad will become depressed. He won’t enjoy the summer.”
“I know, I know. That’s why I keep telling him I will help him, but he sits and thinks about how he can still do it by himself. I keep talking and talking. Maybe he’ll come around. Listen here he comes, I have to go.”
After the call I had written green onions on my grocery list and prayed for Dad to accept Mom’s help. Now leaning against my kitchen sink I breathed in the pungent smell of the wet onions, picturing Dad in his floppy straw hat, carving the garden with his trusty old hoe, tossing out rocks as he clears the ground. I willed a vision of him in his backyard, tugging on green stems, forcing them through the sticky mud, bringing in a bunch of onions to clean.
It’s not surprising that the idea of beginning a garden exhausts my Dad this year. At 83 he suffers with the effects of vascular troubles creating limitations on what he can and cannot do. Preparing and planting a garden seems like an overwhelming challenge to him. But it is his challenge, his duty, his job, his service to his family and friends, his to choose to let go. He defines this as his responsibility, as clearly as Mom’s role begins when he brings in the harvest to her. He provides, she designs ways to enjoy the food with the family. A time old relationship, a pattern that is difficult to change.
It has always been this way. Dad has planted and harvested gardens in his yards year after year. He’s worked in small patches, and on large farms. The winter calms, the days lengthen and the rhythm of nature stirs my Dad, the steadiness of the earth balances his soul. He’s drawn to digging the soil like the deer that paw through the spring snow to find the first chutes of grass. Every year he begins with planting onions, the first to sow in the garden, to soak up the spring rains, to seek the earth’s warmth.
As a young girl I helped Dad plant them, pushing the tiny bulbs into their spots, making sure that they pointed upwards towards the sun. Dad would take his hoe, draw a straight line in the dirt, and place two bulbs along the line so I could see how far apart they should be planted. He’d give me a little brown bag of bulbs and let me plant my row all by myself. Because I didn’t like straight rows of anything, I would mischievously imagine my bulbs dancing along the line in the dirt, hopping over it, back and forth, slightly missing, but nearing it within reason. At least they seemed appropriately aligned for Dad’s inspection before he raked the topsoil over them. I don’t remember him correcting my “dancing onions,” perhaps he merely enjoyed my company in the garden.
I looked forward to digging my fingers into the dirt to let my onion bulbs create their dance. In my mind the routine took place on a beautiful outdoor stage, a rainbow arcing above…
“Hey there’s a big one, pull it out and put it in the bucket.”
Dad somehow appeared over me as I daydreamed, just in time to notice when a worm would wriggle free from the soil. He liked to collect the worms we uncovered to use as bait for trout fishing. Thankfully garden worms didn’t have the same smell as their counterparts that littered the driveway and sidewalks on rainy days. I would happily scoop up these worms and plop them into the bucket Dad had filled with soil. I thought it seemed like a friendly rite of passage for them. Their service as dirt aerators complete, they graduated to fishing duty. With any luck they would be the worms I would put on my hook, so that when I wildly cast my fishing line they would be flung free to the safety of the creek bank, free to wriggle away to a new land, to a new adventure.
Onions, I miss those dancing onions in my Dad’s garden. I even miss the worms squirming in the bucket of dirt awaiting their fishing escapades.
“Guess what I did this morning,” my Dad says, when he answers the phone later that day.
“I don’t know what did you do, Dad?”
“I planted onions.”
“You started the garden?”
“With Mom, she helped me and well, Mom and I planted the onions.”
“I remember when we did that together, Dad.”
“Yeah, well… I’ll get Mom, she’ll tell you all about it.”
That’s probably the longest conversation Dad and I have had lately. He sounds so happy, so relieved. He found a way to join the rhythm of nature again. Somehow Mom convinced him that she should help with the planting. I wonder how? Well she’ll certainly tell me all about it when she comes to the phone.
For just a moment, I close my eyes, I breathe in the scent of upturned spring soil. I picture Dad in his floppy straw hat, his new garden partner taking his hand as she rises from her knees. There’s a natural flow in their movements even with an awkward backward stumble. Back and forth they step with each other across the rows of onions they’ve planted. It’s something new and different, maybe not striking or graceful, but somewhere beneath the soil I imagine onion bulbs swaying to their dance.