11. Against the Grain

11. Against the Grain

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Against the Grain

The best way to garden is to put on a wide-brimmed straw hat and some old clothes. And with a hoe in one hand and a cold drink in the other, tell somebody else where to dig.

~Texas Bix Bender, Don’t Throw in the Trowel

Retirement hits some people hard. And when my father retired, no one was harder hit than my mother, my sister and I. With time hanging heavy on his hands and nothing much to do but try Mum’s patience and dole out long-winded advice on Shirley’s legal cases, Dad had soon picked up the not-so-subtle hints about doing something better with himself than just being Man of the House. Tiring of daytime television, he had begun to hunt in earnest for a proper hobby with which to keep himself occupied. After having taken up and discarded solitaire (too slow), stamp collecting (too expensive), bird watching (too silent), origami (too messy) and even vacuuming (“not my grandmother’s vase, dear!”), Dad was nearing the end of his tether and the limit of everyone’s good-natured tolerance.

An emergency family meeting was convened and it was unanimously agreed that in the interests of sanity, Dad would have to be introduced to an addictive pastime on the quick or there was danger of someone doing him bodily harm (Mum had threatened to take a rolling pin to his rear). Naturally, the challenging task of selecting his hobby fell to me.

Accordingly, the very next day found me sitting amongst piles of newspapers messily spread all over the hall floor, poring over the classifieds in the local daily, muttering to myself under my breath and searching in vain for a part-time line of work that would suit my father.

“Accounts? No, he couldn’t even balance his own cheque-book without bankrupting himself out of existence. Bee-keeping? Oh dear, he’ll be stung by the mere suggestion. Car hire? Nope, it sure won’t lift his spirits. Dance instructor? Oh-ho, I bet he’s had enough of dancing to Mum’s tunes. Employment consultant? Sorry, but we’re going to have to let that one go….” And so on, from A to Z, option after option was rejected. “Computer programmer? Ha! He can barely decode the television remote. Library helper? Nah, he would only go to sleep. Radio presenter… hmmm….” I wondered if Dad’s rich baritone filled with gravitas would appeal to today’s hip-hop crowd. Shaking my head, I moved my eye further down the list of advertisements and hit the jackpot. Gardening!

It would be perfect. We’d get Dad to plant his own garden in our overgrown backyard. That way, he would be gainfully employed and remain under Mum’s watchful eye to keep him out of harm’s way. I patted myself on the back for a job well done and mentally started preparing myself for the admiration and accolades of my oft-critical family.

“You what?” gasped Mum, when I informed her rather smugly of my brilliant idea. “Gardening? And with his knees? Your father is never going to be able to sit down at the dinner table again. Really, love, you should know better.” Crushed, I was about to return to the classifieds when Dad popped his head in. “I’ve decided to take up gardening,” he announced. He had probably overhead my conversation with Mum and was determined to take the opposite side, bad knees and all. I rolled my eyes as my mother gathered enough breath to chide him. “Uh uh,” he held up one hand. “My mind is made up,” he said firmly. “In fact my dear, just wait till you’re eating your own cabbages and courgettes,” the optimist assured us over his shoulder as he walked away with a jaunty step, whistling tunelessly. And Mum doesn’t even like cabbages. Or courgettes.

“Don’t worry,” she sniffed as she went back to sautéing her vegetables. “He’ll take it up like he always does and then forget all about it in three days.” I hoped Mum was right, but having noted the light of battle in Dad’s eye, I wouldn’t have bet on it.

Within a week, our house resembled a construction site. He had spent considerable time and effort designing a grand layout for our humble three-square-metre plot. Now the plans were spread out on the double bed. Labourers tramped in and out with muddy boots all over Mum’s clean carpets. Dad had gone out with all guns blazing and got the professionals to clear the weeds and turn the soil so that it would be pliable and ready for him to use.

Once the dust had settled, Dad declared that he was ready to begin his new hobby. Chairs were brought out to the backyard and piled high with issues of Your Garden and Gardening For Dummies. Numerous bookmarks of varied shapes and sizes stuck out from them at all angles marking different pages and diagrams. The Master Plan occupied the pride of the place, propped up reverently beside a pair of thick gloves.

Dad looked up at the sky, took in the sun and beamed. “Perfect balmy weather.” He rolled up his shirtsleeves and lowered himself to the ground. The rest of us crowded in around him. He began by hunting for his glasses. Shirt pockets, trouser pockets, inches of the floor around him, everything was patted and peered at. No glasses. He bellowed out for Mum, who calmly plucked them from where they were hanging down his chest and plonked them firmly on his nose. Satisfied that he could see clearly, he then looked around for a trowel to dig a few small holes according to his masterful layout design. He took several minutes to decide which one to use from the impressive array of trowels set out for the purpose.

At this point, several voices started clamouring for attention all at once. “I don’t think this plan is quite right,” said Shirley, holding the plan upside down and squinting into the untidy scribbles. “No, no, it is perfect, as long as you measure the exact dimensions with this ruler,” insisted I and thrust one under Dad’s nose. “Be sure you dig deep enough,” reminded Mum.

My father ignored everybody. “Someone get me an edger.” We stood rooted to the spot, looking uncertainly at each other. What in the name of heavens was that? Meanwhile, Dad had returned to poking holes in the ground at evenly spaced out distances. Mum resignedly started hunting around for something that looked like an “edger” while Dad began to get exasperated with the waiting. “Where’s the spade?” Shirley pointed it out lying on the ground behind him. He picked it up, then looked at the trowel he was still clutching in his other hand and seemed puzzled. “Now, why am I holding that?” He dumped both beside him and glanced around for something else. “Bring me the watering can,” he directed. Groaning under the weight of the colossal watering can, I lugged it leaking water all the way from the tap. He proceeded to tear open a packet of seeds and spill them around, with more going out of the holes than into them. Mum was getting harried still searching for the elusive edger. “What on earth happened to my trowel?” Dad asked grumpily.

Over the next couple of hours, Dad was completely immersed in his garden—and up to his knees in dirt. He hunched down regularly, leaned on his spade often and dug in with gusto several times. Now and again he grunted and consulted with the various bits of information lying around. Sometimes he stopped to sigh deeply and stare at a passing snail or two. Other times he held up his thumb in the air and closed one eye, gauging something mysterious known only to novice gardeners.

We grew restive. “Do you need more help, dear?” Mum asked. “No!” Dad barked shortly and stamped over a third of what he had dug up. We shrugged and gladly escaped into the civilised world of living rooms and air conditioning. Presently, there was an agonising yell and I rushed out to find Dad holding his stubbed toe and prancing about on the other foot. After due ministrations had been completed, he returned to his work, wary of anything pointy-ended and gingerly stepping over any loose twig or leaf, wincing exaggeratedly with every step.

Another hour and three-quarters later it was done. Our backyard “garden” had consumed six trowels, one spade, two picks, an assortment of other implements, five kilograms of top soil, several hundred pounds in professional fees and a soggy handkerchief to wipe the sweaty brow of my father. For this, all it had to show was thirty holes dug into the ground from end to end, mounds of soil heaped in all corners, two hedges damaged and an assortment of fledgling saplings shooting haphazardly out of the uneven ground. The edger was never found.

Dad was discovered bathed, changed and relaxed on the outside patio with a refreshing drink in his hand, massaging a strained knee and a pride that seemed as much hurt as his toe was bruised. He said sheepishly, “Well, that was fun. But I’ve decided gardening isn’t quite for me.” There was a collective sigh of relief. We all sent up a small prayer of thanks for the poor plants that would be spared from further agony. “I’ve decided to take up painting.”

And as visions of paint-splattered walls and floors and a rainbow-coloured father wielding a paintbrush like a mortal weapon rose in front of our eyes, we didn’t know whether to grin or groan.

~Devyani Borade

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