Portrait of a Knotty Headed Johnson Woman

Aunt Elaine

Dear Aunt Elaine: There is a reason I gave my daughter your name.

My Auntie Elaine was my grandma’s youngest sister; and she grew Ohio State Fair blue-ribbon prize-winning tomatoes.  By the time the children of my generation came along she didn’t do much in the way of large-scale gardening they way Grandma Juanita did; but she never gave up on tomatoes; and these she grew in a long double row on the strip of land behind her garage.

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My Conversion to Organics

(Continued from “Learning While Gardening”)

My first child, Nathaniel, was born in February the year following my cucumber disaster.  He must have been four or five months old that spring when I determined to conquer those beetles, get my cukes, and appease Grandma Juanita’s ghost back on over to The Other Side.  I fantasized about giving my baby a nice, fat, cold, home made dill pickle, grown in my own garden, when he began to teethe.  I took myself to a farm supply store, found a pesticide dust applicator and purchased the Sevin.

This memory still haunts me.  And shames me:

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Learning While Gardening

 (continued from “Growing Up in Gardens”)


So.  I grew up in gardens, but I cannot claim to have become a gardener until my early thirties when for the first time I rented a small house from friends who were kind enough to let me experiment with digging holes in their back yard.  I remember exactly what I planted: I did not yet know that flowers planted in straight lines look … odd.  So I planted a bed of snapdragons in a straight line down the side of the house.  And I planted tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and cucumbers, all of them crammed too closely together.  Nevertheless, everything did beautifully until one day, I stepped out of my house to find the cucumber vines limp; the leaves had deflated like aging balloons.  No manner of watering resuscitated them.  They died just about as dead as dead can get.

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Growing Up In Gardens

I was raised up in a clan of sho’ nuff knotty-headed, shoot-from-the-hip African American women, a long line of gardeners for whom gardening was no hobby.  Gardening was a fact.  It was a fact the same way going to church was a fact, the way cleaning rich people’s houses and cooking their grits were facts, the way whupping a child’s behind to keep her in school getting straight A’s was a fact.

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