My paternal grandfather has been a great inspiration to me in my life, from the interesting adventures he had early in his life to the amazing frugality he showed in his later life.
He passed away when I was very young, in the middle of a harsh winter, but most of my memories of him come from the summer before that. He was an avid gardener and he would spend his days out in the middle of the garden. He’d often corral one (or more) of his grandchildren into helping out with various tasks, from planting to mulching to weeding to picking vegetables. He’d stand out there in the garden in his denim overalls and straw hat with a bemused look in his face, watching at me mangle the process of picking cherry tomatoes.
I learned so many things about that summer, about life and money and everything:
The best tasting vegetable of all wasn’t one that you bought, but one that you grew yourself from a seed. I still remember the taste of those cherry tomatoes rolling over my tongue as my grandfather playfully chased me, chastising me for gobbling down those sweet fruits. And they were so sweet and delicious, far more than the ones you would actually pay money for in the store. Why? They were as fresh as you could possibly get, pulled from the vine and directly put into my mouth, the product of months of love from my grandfather, myself, and the rest of the family we all shared.
Weeding was the best time to figure out the world. He used to get into this trance when he was weeding. I could walk right up beside him and talk to him and he would often not even notice I was there. I remember him telling me once that when he started weeding, sometimes he went to another place where he could figure everything out. I didn’t know what he meant then, but as I grew older, I began to understand – weeding can be a form of meditation. I often get into that meditative zone when writing, and when I come out I feel completely peaceful.
The best fertilizer of all? Table scraps mixed with water and earthworms. He used to keep a giant barrel behind his house, covered up with a cinder block on top of it. He’d scrape wasted food, yard waste, and so on straight into this barrel, and occasionally throw earthworms that would come out after a nice rainfall in there as well. About once a month, he’d go out there and stir it around a bit, and then twice a year, he’d stop adding new stuff for a week, then harvest it and cover the entire garden. His philosophy was that if you’re throwing something away, you’re probably truly wasting it. I didn’t really understand what he meant by that until I got much older.
Love smells like wet dirt. Whenever it would rain, he would take me outside and we would wander around in the garden, the water splashing all around us. He’d lift up the leaves of the cabbages and make sure the rain got underneath and I would run excitedly up and down the rows. One of my most vivid images of him was when he was kneeling beside a cabbage plant in the rain, lifting up the leaves, getting drenched. His grey hair was plastered down to his head and he was looking straight at me with that toothless grin of his. More than anything, though, I remember the smell of it. Even to this day, the smell of fresh dirt in the middle of a rainstorm or right afterward puts me at peace.
Tap water is manna from heaven on a hot day. My grandfather used to fill old wine bottles with tap water and put them in the refrigerator, which he always kept as cold as he could get it. After working in the garden with him, we’d go inside and we’d all sit down, each of us holding a wine bottle with cold, clean water inside (and often just the faintest hint of the flavor of the wine) and drink it down.
What did I learn more than anything? They were some of the best memories of my childhood, and none of them cost a dime. I remember flavors, smells, experiences, people, places, and things from that summer in the garden. I remember being happy from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. I remember feeling genuinely loved and cared for and not wanting to be anywhere else in the world. And it didn’t cost anything at all. Money isn’t the source of happiness – it’s people you care about, thoughts in your head, and things that you share.