Slimantics: Dad and the contradiction of spring ...

March 19, 2013 11:55:42 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


Wednesday is the first day of spring, that time of year when most of us do with joy what we will be complaining about having to do come summer. 


Nurseries and garden supply and home improvement stores show a noticeable up-tick in business when the leading edge of spring arrives. In Mississippi, that can be as early as late February or as late as early April. Spring arrived right on time this year, as the weekend's balmy weather has attested. 


I doubt there has ever been anyone who enjoyed the arrival of spring more than my dad. 


In fact, such was his zeal for "planting season" that he could not be restrained. The man simply could not wait to dig into the earth.  


For more than 40 years, it was his personal goal to produce the first ripe tomatoes in Lee County. Although I have no evidence to support the case, I strongly suspect he succeeded in that effort. All I remember is my brothers and I being summoned out to our enormous vegetable garden to cover his young tomato plants whenever there was a threat of frost. The imprecise and often exaggerated nature of memory tells me we were out there covering those plants every day for a month or more.  


Dad started planting in February, figuring spring would catch up to him sooner or later.  


There is something you should know about my dad: He was a pragmatic, unsentimental man. For most of my childhood, he worked two jobs. That doesn't include tending to a garden that covered almost an acre, laid out with immaculate precision, groomed and weeded and tended to by himself and us boys, who wrote letters to Cesar Chavez bitterly protesting our pitiful condition. While the other kids were playing baseball or fishing, we spent too many a summer afternoon shelling purple hull peas or butter beans, hoeing, spraying or picking. 


Dad never made more than $8 per hour at any job, yet he raised, fed, clothed and educated six kids. That we managed to hang on to the bottom rung of the lower middle class was a testament to his great capacity for work, a quality he shared with mom, who worked her fingers bloody in a garment factory by day and canned the prodigious volume of our garden's yield by night. 


To achieve this, every minute mattered and every penny, too, which is probably why we were the last people in the neighborhood to get a color TV. When the old 19-inch, black-and-white Zenith finally gave up the ghost, we all went to Sears with dad to purchase a new set. We scanned the wall of color TVs hopefully, our Technicolor dreams dashed when dad told the salesman he wanted to see what they had in black-and-white sets. He wasn't much for TV, mainly because he viewed TV-watching as a thoroughly unproductive activity. He also held the theory that a black-and-white TV was just as good as color. (Obviously, dad had never watched the Rose Bowl parade).  


So we wound up with another black-and-white set and had to wait another dozen years before it died and we could get a color TV. We never did get a refrigerator with an icemaker, though. "Are you too lazy to fill up an ice tray?" dad would ask incredulously. "What does it take, five seconds?" 


Suffice it to say, then, dad was not a man for frills. 


But he also proved to be a contradiction. 


He had the flowerbeds to prove it. 


Is there anything more frivolous, less functional than a flower garden?  


And yet if my dad's vegetable garden was the wonder of the neighborhood; his flowerbeds were a close rival. Our yard looked like a mafia boss's funeral, so thick were the flower beds that encircled the house and trees and framed the driveway and street in front of our modest little east Tupelo home. When mom was in town, people would often stop her to compliment her on "her flowers." In what was probably the closest thing to deceit my mom every practiced, she would simply respond with, "Why, thank you!" I don't think my mom ever pulled a weed. 


The flowers were strictly a product of dad's labor. But it wasn't the kind of labor that kept the family fed like working at a brick kiln or pulling graveyard shifts for the city maintenance department or even tending that industrial-sized vegetable garden. 


The flowers represented a labor of a different kind, a toil that was, in every sense, a labor of love. 


My dad was at his best and happiest when it was spring and his hands were deep into the soil, planting and fertilizing and dreaming of the blossoms sure to come. 


Through the spring and summer and into the fall, dad was a man of the soil. And when the deep shadows of fall descended, his spirits declined a little. 


In the winter, he dreamed of the spring that wouldn't come fast enough, poring over seed catalogs, dreaming of blooming things. 


My dad died in September 2005 at the age of 86, his body spent from all those years of labor. In his last days, we knew the time was close. "I'm just wore out," he admitted. 


Personally, I just don't think he had another winter in him. It was the spring he loved. I think he just decided he couldn't wait for another. 


Both the calendar and the climate confirm that tomorrow is the first day of spring. 


But if he has any say in it, I'm pretty sure it's always spring where dad is.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]