Autumn has a special scent in the air, a certain something that tells you, as a creature of this planet, that summer has waned and soon the winter winds will blow. The sky is a paler blue now, and the days have shortened. It’s a time for preparing for what’s to come, and finishing off projects begun in the spring.
It’s the time of the harvest.
The scent of autumn always calls to my nostalgic self. When I was a kid, autumn was the time of canning and homemade soup slowly simmering on the stove, of rosy cheeks from brisk walks.
I loved walking and did a lot of it. We lived in what, growing up, I considered an extremely rural community. There was a country store just a mile down the road, but the nearest town was about six miles away. As a teen, I routinely walked to town if I wanted to go to a movie, or go shopping. There was no public transportation, and my Mom’s taxi only went one way—my choice which way, but I figured I’d rather have the ride home at the end of my excursion.
Autumn was the time when school resumed—we always started our school year the day after Labor Day—and it was the time when, at least in my family, it was all hands on standby for that first frost warning.
My mother, you see, had a vegetable garden. Did you have one? Now, I need to tell you something about my mother’s garden—the one that became mine for a few years after she passed and we moved into that house.
This garden measured 25 feet wide by about 75 feet long. Each spring, one of the neighboring farmers came with his tractor to first plow and then disk this patch of earth for us.
By the way, we lived on top of the Niagara Escarpment, and the quarry (yes the one where my beloved still works) was just down the road, not even a quarter mile away. The significance of this fact is that every year, after the plowing and disking, the first chore of gardening was gathering all the new rocks that had come to the surface.
My mother grew tomatoes and peppers (mostly green peppers) green beans, yellow beans, and potatoes, cucumbers, squash, and corn. At my mother’s knee I learned not to plant the various varieties of squash too close together—especially the cucumbers and the watermelons—and to put the corn in the west end of the garden.
The most prolific of my mother’s crops were tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers.
When the first frost warnings came—for the milder frosts—we had to go out and “cover” the plants still bearing fruit. This was an exercise that involved old bed sheets, opened paper bags, and those rocks we’d dug out in the spring. But then, the day would come, when mother would announce that it was time to harvest the garden.
She had a portable double-tub wash tub that we used inside for laundry but which also served as the washing station for the harvest. The tub would be hauled out; the hose would be employed; and the vessel filled with the coldest damn water you ever had your hands in.
I swear, that is my biggest memory, how cold my hands got scrubbing the potatoes and the cucumbers, especially. Yeah, there were such things as rubber gloves in those days, but there was no way in hell my mother would get those for me. And since I was the youngest—I would have been about 10 or 11 at the time—I couldn’t be expected to dig, or pick, or lift baskets and baskets full of produce. But I could wield a scrub brush like nobody’s business, and I did.
Potatoes were set to dry on a sheet spread out on the grass. They had to dry before you could store them. The cucumbers were set into baskets, having been sorted for size. Smaller ones became dills, medium ones, sweet pickles. The larger ones and I had a date later, because they needed to be sliced, the seeds culled out, and the left over veggie put through the grinder, as the first step of making green pickle relish.
Nothing went to waste; everything was used. What wasn’t canned or turned into a preserve, was frozen. Those scooped seeds were tossed into the compost pile out back. I never really understood when I was a child, but looking back from where I am now, I realize that garden fed us. As my mother at that point was a single mom, supporting three kids on a nurse’s salary that in the day was meager, that garden was a God-send.
If I ever get back to the country, you can be sure I will once more have a garden. Although it won’t be quite as ambitious a one as my mother owned.
And you can also be sure that when it comes time to harvest, I’ll corral my grandchildren. Some lessons are worth passing on.
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