From Pea to Pod

Life lessons, in a garden.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY HEATHER GRAHAM

I grew up in a family where emotion was held close. Displays of affection were few. Folks didn’t hug and kiss as they do today—but they did care. Yes, they cared.

My grandmother, Lena, lived many miles away, so we didn’t see her very often. When I was 14 years old, my family moved to a small country property with a large, century-old house. This held enormous appeal for my grandmother, so her visits became more frequent and she stayed longer.

Looking back, I know that my grandmother was not the usual run-of-the-mill gal. I never in my life saw her wield a knitting needle or push a rolling pin. She never read a book to me or told me stories of her youth. She did man a powered vacuum with menace, though, and Mother often commented that she had no idea how Grandma could make a bathroom shine the way she did.

Grandma didn’t flinch. Stretching to her full height, she stared my father down—well, up.

On our little acreage, we raised a few chickens, goats, and ducks, as well as the odd pig. These were all housed in an old piggery well away from the house. Grandma let it be known that this was her domain when she was here. Under her care, the piggery smelled sweet with fresh hay, and the yard was raked clean of droppings. The laying boxes were changed every day. Even the goats seemed to understand their boundaries.

Now, I have to tell you that my grandma stretched to reach 5’ and was so tiny that she’d shop for clothing in the children’s department. My mother was a comfortable 5’6” and I had already passed 5’6”. My brother and father both were well over 6’2”. We always teased Grandma when we stood next to her. But let me tell you, what she lacked in size, she made up for in feistiness. There was not one of us who could impose ourselves on what she determined was her jurisdiction.

My father claimed to be the family authority on vegetable gardening. The large plot at the side of the house was his to till, seed, and reap. That is, until Grandma decided she could do it better. One warm spring morning, after my father left for work, Grandma got my brother on the tractor. Between the two of them, they tore up the soil and ran the cultivator over it several times, until the black loam sifted like coffee grounds through your fingers. Father was totally unaware of these proceedings. Mother tried to interject, but ended up shaking her head, knowing she would have to referee between the two most stubborn people she knew when father got home.

After lunch, Grandma demanded my help. We sat at the kitchen table and sorted seeds, then progressed to the garden. There we strung lengths of cord, pulled them tight, and tied them to two sticks to help us mark where each row would be. We made a planting trench with a hoe. Grandma handed me a package of dried peas, then headed off to sow the carrots. I’d often helped my father, so I confidently dribbled the seed into the trench and kicked the earth on top of it with my foot. It took about five minutes.

Just as I was about to step on the freshly planted earth, I felt a firm hand on my arm.

“What are you doing, child?” My grandmother asked.

“Oh, I just spread the seed. Now I’m going to tamp it down with my foot.”

Grandma’s black Polish eyes peered at me. She grabbed my hand, led me to the top of the row, and brushed away the soil, uncovering the first of my peas. Then she held them in her hand, plopped to the ground, and motioned for me to sit beside her.

“You see these?” she asked. “They are baby peas. They are children from another generation, and they have to be cultivated with care so they can continue to produce. They need nurturing and space. They need vitamins from the soil and moisture to grow. They need sunlight and warmth. Now watch me.”

Grandma filled her weathered palm with seeds, reached over with gnarled fingers, and gently tucked each seed into its own special place, equal distance from each other. Then she pushed each one in with her thumb and gently sifted fresh dirt over it.

“You see, it’s like tucking a child in bed. The seed is sleeping, and we want it to wake up happy with its new place in life. That way it will sprout and grow strong and produce a bounty for us to enjoy.”

That was as close to a display of affection as I ever got from my grandma. But I can still feel that squeeze.

As far as I was concerned, this was all balderdash—they were going to grow any-way. But as I mentioned earlier, one did not challenge my grandmother. So I followed her directions and grudgingly tucked the seeds in as instructed, muttering nasties under my breath.

We finished the garden and were just putting the tools away when my father arrived home from work. He was not pleased.

“Lena, this time you have overstepped your bounds!” His Irish showing, he picked her up, carried her out of the garden, and deposited her on the grass.

Grandma didn’t flinch. Stretching to her full height, hands on her hips, she stared my father down—well, up.

“You mark my words, Bill,” she said. “This garden was planted with loving care, and it will produce more than the family will ever need.”

With that, she smoothed her apron and skirts and stomped across the backyard to the kitchen door.

There was a lot of discussion around the supper table that night! Finally my father conceded to Grandma for “just this time.” The weekend ended with the family at the roadway, waving goodbye to Grandma, as the bus stopped to collect her and return her to the big city.

Three weeks later Grandma returned, this time to stay awhile. As soon as she arrived, she deposited her suitcase, beckoned me to follow, and headed for the garden. As she surveyed how well it was doing, a smile wiped out the wrinkles around her mouth. Taking me by the hand, she led me to the rows where the peas were planted.

She squatted and reverently cradled a soft, green leaf. “See, my child, it is a living thing, like a baby, and all young things need loving care. I want you to look after these. Don’t let any weeds choke the vines, and keep the soil loose so moisture can reach the roots. Make them a trellis so they can grow tall and straight. They are your responsibility.”

From then on, whenever I failed to check the peas, I was brought to task. Within a very few weeks, flowers appeared on the vines.

Grandma looked at them with me: “Now, you see, your vines are blossoming. Like you, they are teenagers.” She spoke gently. “Next, bees will come to visit the flowers, as will nasty bugs. It’s your job to make sure the wrong insects do not harm the maturing plants.”

Each evening, Grandma and I checked the peas. Soon small pods appeared. “These pods are like a young woman,” Grandma announced. “They’ll fill out and be ready for picking soon. You must be very careful that they are not picked too soon, so they can mature to perfection.” She looked right in my eyes.

I stared back at her—and realized for the first time that the whole exercise of planting the garden was my grandmother’s way of offering sage advice. She took my hand and told me that I was from her seed a generation back and that she wanted me to know that infinite care had been given to bring me this far. She added that I must remember the peas when I raised children of my own.

Then she squeezed my hand.

That was as close to a display of affection as I ever got from my grandma. But I can still feel that squeeze, and I cannot shell peas today without seeing her face and remembering that long-ago summer. And, yes, my children planted peas under my demanding scrutiny—as do my grandchildren now.


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