My Row of 2,000

Far, far better than manicured nails.

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I was invited to a wedding happening the next Wednesday. When you go to a wedding, you dress your best. You do your hair, wear lovely clothes, polish your shoes—and don’t forget your fingernails! Well, my hair could wait until the last minute. I had a new dress hanging ready in the closet. My shoes were shined. But my fingernails…

We had 2,000 tomato plants to put into the ground here at our family farm. The week’s schedule was looking full. So when to plant the tomatoes?

My brother said, “Monday.”

Daddy said, “Monday.”

I said, “Monday.”

So it was Monday that my nails got their workover. Not at Nails-R-Us. In the garden.

The field conditions were ideal. It was raining lightly, making the ground moist and soft and keeping us only slightly damp. Daddy punched the holes in the plastic mulch. My brother and I scooped out the holes and patted loose soil around the root balls of the first six-inch tomato seedlings. Pulling the next seedlings from the four-pack, we scooped, planted, and patted again. Scoop, plant, pat. Scoop, plant, pat. By the 400th tomato plant, we were flying.

Monday, my nails got their workover for the wedding. Not at Nails-R-Us. In the garden.

Missouri soil is—at its kindest—a mean emery board. Flint and sandstone rocks hide in the soft dirt. By midmorning I had clawed into several, and each one had kept a little of me for itself. After the 800th tomato, the middle fingernail on my right hand was peeled down to the quick. The index fingernail was next in line.

Giving my right hand a break, I started scooping with my left. There must be something about the soil itself that dissolves nails, and moisture only accelerates the effect. Every time I hit a rock, it set my teeth on edge and ground a little more off the ends of my fingernails. By plant number 1,200, I knew I had reached the point of no return.

“Drink your milk,” my sister admonished me during our lunch break. “Get your calcium.” She passed me the pitcher of reconstituted dried milk. Wedding or no, I refused. Even chipped fingernails are better then powdered milk.

So I returned to work after noon unfortified. At the bottom of the field, the soil was packed harder by previous rains. It took both thumbs to carve a slot for tomato plant number 1,600. Sure enough, there was a rock in the bottom. The hole really needed to be deeper, though. So I pried and scratched, trying to get a purchase on the edge of the stone to dislodge it. It wouldn’t budge—but it took care of my thumbnails.

When the 2,000th tomato was set snugly into the ground, I looked at my own personal row of 10. They were a sorry sight. Ragged and dirty, they were packed with mud. Dirt was tucked, as into a pocket, around the cuticles. Each nail was caked to double thickness. I did not relish the expensive scrubbing it was going to take to clean them.

Then I looked back over the tomato patch. Two thousand smart green plants marched across the brown Missouri earth. A field full of promise.

Tuesday, I did the laundry. The detergent gave my hands their second workover and routed the most stubborn dirt. My fingernail clipper trimmed the rough edges.

Wednesday, I went to the wedding: hair done, best clothes donned, shoes shined—and nails clipped down to nothing. The lady I sat beside was dressed her finest. As I looked her up and down, I noticed her hands lying in her lap. Her row of ten subtly complemented her turquoise jewelry. Each nail was embossed with green leaves, accented with silver and highlighted in gold.

I looked from her lap to mine. There was my row of ten—plain, stubby, and stained. But with my mind’s eye, I looked farther and saw green leaves misted by the silver rain and highlighted by the brown earth, subtle complements to the lovely Missouri landscape in whose lap they lay. My row of 2,000.

The gardener’s manicure.

This article was published originally in 2017, in GreenPrints Issue #109.


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