35: The Garden

35: The Garden

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The Garden

There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling.

~Mirabel Osler

Although he doesn’t remember it—and Oscar Bailey seldom forgets anything—Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was still the President of the United States. Two months later, William Howard Taft would begin his term in the White House. The year was 1909, the same year Oscar, my grandfather, was born.

Over the following decades, the Delawarean from the small mill town of Milford would live a simple but fulfilling life that would intersect with the lives of hundreds. He would become a devoted husband, a father of one son and one daughter, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. Professionally, he would serve the people of the First State as their Head Forester, a job he finally had to be crow-barred away from in the 1970s at the age of 72. Even the Governor of Delaware at the time, Pete du Pont, commented about Oscar’s commitment to quality and his loyalty to his job.

On a more personal level, Oscar enjoyed fishing, hunting and beekeeping, but he excelled at repairing watches and antique clocks. He was particularly proficient with German cuckoo clocks, and since many of his ancestors were from the Old Country, it seemed appropriate that these skills were in his bloodline. For many years, he enjoyed a good pipe in the evening, too, puffs of cherry-scented tobacco filling his den.

But the thing Oscar will be best remembered for when he finally departs this earth will be his gardens. He credits eating fresh produce from the earth, grown by his wife Mildred and himself for nearly eight decades, as the life-sustaining tonic that provided longevity of life and health for more than a century.

Every year, Oscar would lay out a garden that would rival Eden. Each row was perfectly aligned, hoed and plowed, fertilized and watered, weeded with care and pampered. Seeds would cultivate, sprout and produce tasty, colorful vegetables and fruits. He grew everything: strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, lettuces, tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers and squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, radishes, peppers, and eggplant.

One year, after retirement, Oscar was featured on the front page of the local newspaper for growing perhaps the tallest tomato plant in the entire state! A black-and-white photograph was published of him standing on the top of a six-foot, A-frame ladder, stretching his hands to the sky in an effort to touch the top of the fertile plant.

And then one day Oscar’s wife died. He was old, frail, and failing. And sad. But also stubborn. After Mildred was gone, there was some foolish talk about Oscar moving to an assisted-living community for senior citizens, but he quickly nipped that in the bud. Fiercely independent, he insisted on living and dying in his home in the countryside.

Always a regular visitor, his daughter, my mother Phyllis, began to go there with greater frequency, often daily. She assisted in many ways, along with a part-time caregiver, who was also a nearby neighbor. My mother cooked, cleaned and handled laundry chores for Oscar as he sat there and read the paper. She ensured he took his medications in the proper dosages. She grocery shopped for Oscar and ran him to the doctor when scheduled. Mostly, they talked and reminisced. My brother, Michael, helped with the outdoor chores, grass cutting, stacking wood during the cold winter months, and feeding the birds—Oscar’s “neighbors.” And somehow every spring, Oscar managed a garden.

In his late nineties, Oscar’s health had deteriorated to the point that he simply could not work in the garden anymore. Everyone thought that finally the garden had been permanently retired, the soil turned over for the final time. It made sense. After all, it was a lot of work in the humid, dusty days of June, July, and August. And Delaware was more and more prone to droughts, adding to the misery of keeping a garden alive.

When the signs of spring finally arrived one April day, with birds building nests while tweeting joyful tunes, my mother could tell there was something wrong with her father. He was especially quiet, reflective.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing…” he replied with an empty tone, his voice trailing off.

“Are you feeling okay? Are you sick today?”

He stared outside in the direction of the unplanted garden. She followed his aged, foggy eyes behind his horn-rimmed glasses. And then it hit her.

“You’re thinking about the garden, aren’t you?” she presumed with a smile. “Do you want us to plant your garden for you this year, Dad?” And then he smiled like a child surprised with an unexpected gift.

The past few years, Oscar has had his garden—fresh vegetables and juicy fruits to consume and give away to family, neighbors, and friends. His role, as a high-level subject-matter expert, is to sit in a lawn chair or his wheelchair on days when it’s not too hot outside, and supervise, offering direction to his daughter and grandson. They are his laborers. He’s the foreman. Together, thanks to family, it all works out.

When Oscar does depart this world one day, he has asked my mother to handle his affairs, which includes cremation of his thin, bony body. One of his final requests is that his ashes will be spread in the woods behind his house, on a small hilltop… near his garden.

~David Michael Smith

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