There were simple rules at my Grandparents’ house, rules you knew you must abide while visiting. I don’t remember learning most of these guidelines, what I remember is knowing these rules existed and I should do my best to comply. We visited my Grandparents every Sunday after church. The church my parents had been married in, the church both their families had helped to found. I would sit in the pew next to my mother, swinging my feet and kicking the pew in front of me. I sang along to the hymns and made up words of my own. I would count the windows or the number of ceiling tiles it took to cover the whole church. I didn’t do much listening in church, but I remember going to Grandma’s house after for tea and cinnamon raisin toast.
Most times when we arrived home from church, Grandpa would be out back in his garden. When my mother and Grandma needed to chat without my little ears in the vicinity, I would be ushered directly to the back yard. Rushing past my Grandpa’s pickup and around the corner of the house, down the path, past the day lilies and into the most magical garden. My grandpa bent over his tomatoes, tying them to stakes, would stand and wipe his brow with the handkerchief that was always sticking out of his pocket. Such fun we had digging in the dirt, picking veggies and pulling weeds and throwing them in the hole. Sometimes I’d wander off task to chase a butterfly or climb the tree. What a rag a muffin I was, that is what my mother always said.
I knew it was safe to go back into the house when my Grandma lifted the kitchen window to tell me to pick some mint for our cup of tea. Gleefully I would run to the edge of the garden, next to the old chain link fence, passed the forsythia where the mint ran wild. “Pick as much as you’d like!” my grandpa would tell me. ”The weed is taking over the yard!” It always made me giggle. Running back into the house with my fist full of mint, I’d climb the back stairs to the kitchen and hand the mint to Grandma. Next I was off to the bathroom to wash my hands, no tea and toast without clean hands. Here in the bathroom, on the second floor, you’d find the great ball of soap.
Part of the reason I never argued over washing hands at my grandparents’ house was this great ball of soap. It was huge in my little hands and it was many different colors. When you got it wet, so many different fragrances rose from the suds. I would spin it in my hands, rolling it over and over creating fabulous bubbles. Sometimes that great ball would slip out of my hands and thunk in the bottom of the sink, splashing soapy water all over, making me giggle. Eventually my mother would climb the stairs looking for me, trying to stop me before the mess had gotten too big. I’d start frantically wiping up the sink as soon as I heard her footsteps approaching. No one needs to get upset over a little soapy water and I certainly didn’t want to jeopardize my mint tea and toast at the big person table.
If I was lucky and my mess had been minimal, no tea or toast was spared. We would return to the kitchen where my Grandma would be sitting with her cup of tea. The little step stool would be dragged from the corner next to the fridge over to the kitchen table so I could join the ladies. My cup of tea, half filled would be poured and I got the pleasure of dropping in the mint leaves. Grandma would put the bread in the toaster and my mother would butter my toast. Gleefully I’d gobble up that toast and slurp my tea with reckless abandon. Over the years, my manners did improve, but my seat was always that little stool in the corner.
On the way home, my mother once asked me why I liked to wash my hands so much at my grandparents’ house. The great ball of soap is really the only thing I could come up with. Why couldn’t we have a great ball of soap? My mother never really answered that question, not to my memory. Years later when I was older, my mom finally explained. My Grandpa had been raised during the Great Depression, when every little thing had value, things we just threw away. Things like the last little sliver of soap, that tiny, slippery piece we drop in the shower and later grab with a tissue and discard. My Grandpa’s soap was every last little sliver they ever had, all balled up into one beautiful orb of suds.
It’s kinds beautiful, isn’t it?
For everything you do in life, there is that first time. It doesn’t matter what endeavor you undertake, there is nothing like those first nervous steps into the unknown. Anticipation builds leading up to the event. You become a little anxious even, expectations are so high. Making plans can help, rummaging through reference materials and taking fastidious notes strengthens one’s resolve. We will make this happen. There are bound to be some disasters, we may suffer a few losses, but those delicious tomatoes will be worth it all in the end! These are the first steps into any new adventure, and so began ours.
The garden was a Mother’s Day gift from my husband. We had moved to a house on Main Street, a street with much fewer deer than our last home address. A garden had simply been impossible there without a six foot perimeter fence around your entire plot. Discussion had begun over the winter about planting our own food. All of our grandparents had gardened in some way or another. My grandmother grew flowers, his planted corn in the front yard. My grandfather was famous for his tomatoes and his raised chickens in Israel. There was a long heritage of gardening and self-sustainability here that we wanted to honor and continue.
First we discussed the placement of the garden in the yard. What part of the yard received the most amount of sun? Did that same area also have suitable drainage? We wanted to grow things, not create a mud puddle. Looking back on it now, I am surprised at how much research we did ensuring our garden was in the best possible location. I am not a patient woman, so this type of scrutinizing was uncharacteristic for me. We chose the sloping south side yard for our garden. The sun made a slow marching arch over the space and the natural slope of the yard made for perfect drainage. That time spent was well worth it; our garden is now in its eighth year and continues to produce for us every year.
Even though I knew exactly where the garden would be dug and terraced, it was still an awe inspiring surprise to watch it actually take shape. That was no small task, five plots were dug out and shaped and four curving walls were built to separate the plots. The walls came down the side yard, advancing in soft arcs; the landscape men there to assist were stunned we weren’t adding shrubbery and other landscapes to fill the space. They left scratching their heads when my husband informed them his wife intended to fill the space with vegetables. I can still remember standing there, smiling from ear to ear. Smelling the fresh turned earth, I couldn’t wait to dig our hands in there and get started.
Our garden was ready to be planted by mid-May, far too late to start our crops from seed, so we did the next best thing. In the Garden State we are blessed with a very active 4-H community of Master Gardeners. Every Mother’s Day, in our county, they would host a plant sale of all the Master Gardeners’ starts. There were flowers and shrubs, vegetables and fruits. Most prominent in the middle of the sale are rows and rows of gorgeous heirloom tomato starts. In New Jersey, we don’t take our tomatoes lightly, this is serious growing business. Rutgers University is responsible for developing several different types of tomatoes right here in Central Jersey. Choosing a variety for our new garden was no easy task, but it was an enjoyable one. I chose a large purple variety, while my husband chose a cherry. After everyone in the family had made their decisions, we were ready to go home and plant.
The garden went in that day. The soil was fresh and new, very easy to plant the new starts. Our work was completed before the sun had set; there was an amazing feeling of accomplishment. We had watermelon, strawberries, and two varieties of tomatoes, celery, carrots and a bearded Iris for our youngest. The fifth plot we had given to our tenant, which she planted with herbs and peppers I believe. We stood there with dirt on our knees, blisters on our hands and enormous grins on our faces. The dream had become a reality, something we had talked about for years finally comes to life, and it was awesome.
“Watch out for the hole!” I was always told as I was running for the back yard. The perfect place to play while the adults chatted about boring things children wanted nothing to do with. How tall was the corn? How many green beans are there for me to pick? Is there any zucchini hiding behind those enormous leaves? Can I help pick some mint to place in my big girl cup of tea? If I am lucky, there will be a cookie to go with that tea as well. These are the things soaring through my mind as I race up the side of the house, my Grandma yelling “Watch out for the hole!”
My Grandpa John always dug an enormous hole at the start of every growing season. Throughout the year he would throw just about everything in the hole. All the refuse collected from the spring yard work. All the weeds from the garden would go in the hole. A variety of things from the kitchen also found their way into the hole. My Grandma kept a little basket in the sink for egg shells, vegetable peels, used tea bags with the staple removed, bits of fruit that were over ripened and the sort. At the end of the day the basket was emptied into the hole. In the fall all the leaves were collected and dumped in the hole. At the very end of the season, before the first flakes flew, my Grandpa would cover the hole with dirt. Next year, this space would be his tomato patch. Every season this process continued and every season the tomato patch would move. Best darned tomatoes I’ve ever had, never have I found another to rival their flavor.
Now, I learned at a young age you really did need to watch out for the hole, especially in the spring when the venue had just been moved and the hole was especially deep. The newly dug spot would be randomly placed in the yard. There was really no telling where it might appear; only that it would be a new spot from the year before. Peering into the newly dug soil, I remember wondering how he had dug a hole so deep. I never thought of this annual ritual as strange or forward thinking, just something you did in order to get the best tomatoes. Turns out that wasn’t the only reason.
My Grandpa John was composting, long before I would learn what that word meant. He was also getting an amazing crop of tomatoes because of the rich, fertile soil he was fostering. These are the things I remember about John. My mother imparted a new piece of the story for me, her perspective and memories of these events. Grandpa John refused to pay to have his garbage removed. The fact that he would pay for such a thing left him aghast. He reused, recycled or composted everything to avoid an unnecessary expense, as he saw it. This made me laugh, because it was so John, so true to his character there was no denying it.
Nestled on a 1/4 acre in Central New Jersey is where we begin our self reliance experiment. Right on Main Street across from the library you’ll find our homestead. The house was built in the late 1800′s. A large maple stands at the front corner of our lot, it can be seen as a sappling in a photo taken of our home in 1898. The basement is old stones, pulled from the dirt as they dug the foundation. The house has roots, I can feel the age in the creaks of the floorboards as I mount the stairs on the front porch. This is where we begin.
It started as a very small dream. I wanted to start that garden for John and grow our own food for our children. So many of us don’t have the simple pleasure of going out to the yard and choosing a fresh morsel to pick and eat. I wanted that for our children, I wanted them to see the magic in the garden as I had as a little girl. So one year for Mother’s Day, my husband built me a garden. It was modest at first, five tiered plots with stone walls cascading down the side of our yard. I was ecstatic. Each person in the household was allotted a plot, including our tenant who shared our home. We each carefully chose what plants we wanted in our beds, the memories are sweet of those first cautious steps into homesteading. The garden now reaches Main Street, every year we got a little more ambitious.