GRANDMA'S PUMPKIN PATCH

by Russell T. Johnson

Each year I rent a garden at a local park. The county sets aside small plots of farm land so that town people who want to can rent space in which to raise an actual garden. For some people this is an intermediate step between raising a few tomato plants in flower beds and the purchase of acreage. Lots of people who catch the Green Acres syndrome are cured after six months of therapy at the garden center.

This is my third year working the same plot. Most of the gardeners in any given year are either first timers or they've been there forever. If you're going to quit, quit early. That seems to be the practice. Most first year gardeners are walkaways. They show up a few times in the spring when the weather's beautiful. They plant and they walk away. Over the summer you watch the jungle eat their garden. Most of the first year gardeners never harvest so much as a radish.

Grandma was one of those walkaways. I missed the day she planted, so I never met her until October when I came to the garden to clear out some of my gear for the winter. Her garden was across the road from mine, and as I was working she came over to me and told me that she and her husband were setting out pumpkins which they had bought at a commercial farm. In the spring the grandkids had planted pumpkin seeds in Grandma's garden in hopes of harvesting Halloween pumpkins the next fall. Grandma had promised to tend the garden and keep the pumpkin patch for the grandkids.

Grandma was my neighbor and I had never met her until the week before Halloween, so as you might imagine her garden was neck high weeds and that pumpkin patch was strangled and overgrown by June 1. Grandma knew that kids had short memories and assumed that if she didn't mention the garden and if she changed the subject when they brought it up that by October they would have forgotten all about Grandma's pumpkin patch.

Her jedi mind tricks and the secrets of the yaya sisterhood failed her on this occasion. Every visit she got from the grandkids brought questions about the pumpkins. How do they look? How big are they? Grandma lied and said the pumpkins were just fine, big and orange. For six months the grandkids did not forget and Grandma had lied so often and so convincingly and in such favorable terms regarding the size and the orangeness of the pumpkins that the grandkids were becoming ever more excited about the jack-o-lanterns they would carve from their home-grown pumpkins. They had bragged to the neighbor kids and to their school buddies, and now it was just a few days until halloween and Grandma had better produce some damn punkins.

So Grandma was on my side of the road telling me this story while Grandpa was trampling down the weeds in their garden and setting out pumpkins which they had bought at a commercial farm. She never directly enlisted me in her web of deception, but the implication was clear enough.

I asked, "Won't they notice the pumpkins are not attatched to a vine? You've got pumpkins just sitting in matted down weeds. The vines never got three feet long." She was hopeful that in their excitement they would not notice and if asked she was prepared to say that they had just now finished clearing the vines.

About that time Mom and Dad pull up in their silver SUV with a couple of grandkids, two elementary school aged boys who I must say got a hundred dollars worth of excitement out of about thirty bucks worth of store bought pumpkins.

Grandma had sensed that I was militantly ambivalent about this whole thing. She kept peeking up at me to see what I was doing. What I was doing was I was working in my garden just like I had done all summer. And over there were Grandma and Grandpa who had sat in the AC all summer and told lies and now they're putting on a show so the grandkids won't know what liars they are.

When Grandma had presented her case to me, she said she just didn't want the grandkids to be disappointed. I suppose it's true that I look younger and dumber than I actually am, but maybe Grandma had convinced herself that this really and truly was her motive for telling one more itty bitty fib to the efffect that these pumpkins had grown from this dirt and that Grandma and Grandpa had faithfully cultivated the vines all through the blistering Arkansas summer heat.

I didn't blow it for them, although I was tempted once when the older boy came over to my garden where I was still nursing a few ragged tomato vines and a couple of pepper plants and said, "I'll bet you didn't grow anything like this in YOUR garden."

I took two or three seconds, breathless ones I'm sure for Grandma and Grandpa, before I decided how to answer.

"You're right," I said, "I didn't grow anything like that in my garden. But I did grow a patch of these."

I led him over to where I had grown my melons, a variety called Moon and Stars, so named because both the melons and the foliage were very dark and flecked with white specks as to remind one of a starry night sky. Yet on the vines were a couple or three that wouldn't ripen before frost. Here and there were a couple that had burst or had been broken by possums or coons and had dried to a sugary cake. I reached into one of the broken melons and pried out some seeds.

"This is something you don't see every day. It's a watermelon called Moon and Stars. You can see how it's dark with white spots like stars." I handed him the seeds. "Get your Grandma and Grandpa to grow these for you next year. You won't be able to find any speckled ones like this in any store around here." I looked up at Grandma and she wasn't smiling.

Now planting time has come again. The other day I noticed somebody has been working in Grandma's garden, although I don't know if it was Grandma or some new gardener. Grandma didn't seem to me to be the type to sign up for this again, to fail once and then circle around for another try. Of course, if the grandkids remembered the Moon and Stars with the same enthusiasm they had for Grandma's pumpkin patch, then come summer I might be able to sell Grandma a half-dozen specialty melons. And of course I'm the only one in the county that grows them, so I'm not going to let them go cheap.

RTJ--3/21/04

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