My father never cared for vegetable gardening. He loved his fruit trees — Red Delicious, Arkansas Black, and Granny Smith apples; Elberta peaches; and Bartlett pears — that he ordered from Stark Bro’s catalog and planted in the field below our house and in our backyard. With my older brother Butch’s help, he pruned dead branches and suckers in late winter and protected the trees with orchard spray oil. And he relished the fruit they bore in the summer. Often I have stood with him at the trees as he peered at the spring blossoms, blue sky overhead, and anticipated the fruit to come.
He also took pride in his backyard grapevines — blue Concord, purple muscadine, and red seedless. The Concords had been transplanted from his mama’s backyard, vines his father had nurtured in years past. Like his fruit trees, the grapevines were lovingly pruned and sprayed.
On summer and early fall days, I would find him standing at his grapevines, plucking the plump, rain-washed grapes.
“Don’t reach in there,” I warned him, seeing bees swarming around the ripe grapes. “You’ll get stung.” And I swatted yellow jackets and wasps, trying to keep them away from him.
But he ignored my pleas and continued reaching into the leafy vines and pulling off the grapes, popping them into his mouth and spitting out seeds. He would stand at the vines, doing this, for an hour. He never got stung, though I don’t see how he avoided it.
Despite his interest in his fruit trees and grapevines, he took no interest in the vegetable garden my mother planted each spring in our upper backyard.
She called it a victory garden, recalling the victory gardens of the Second World War-era, ones that the government encouraged home-front citizens to plant to supplement their rations and boost morale. In the small plot Butch tilled for her, she planted tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbages, and corn. She had inherited her mama’s green thumb and often spoke of the abundant vegetable gardens her mama raised in the Clinchfield cotton mill village — gardens that yielded food for the family’s dinner table and surplus green beans to sell at the company store.
My mother did all the sowing, watering, and hoeing. My father never took part in these endeavors, though he seemed to enjoy taking company to look at the well-kept plot.
A neighbor on my parents’ street, David, whom I had known since childhood and enjoyed talking to when I visited home, sat on his front porch with me one day and chatted. Through the years David had raised many gardens himself in the field below his house, and he shared planting tips with my mother and me. In talking that day, he mentioned that my father didn’t seem interested in growing vegetables. He then reminisced how my paternal grandfather, whom he had known years earlier, had always raised a fine garden.
“Preacher Nunnally,” he said, “would measure his rows so that they were perfectly straight.” And he noted how bountiful my grandfather’s gardens were. David’s observations made me wonder why my father took no interest in something that had meant so much to my grandfather.
One day, a few years before his death, I sat on the front porch with my father and asked him about his early years in Marion, North Carolina. He had already told me about his childhood in Newcomb, Tennessee, where his family lived before they settled in Western North Carolina in the 1920s. In Tennessee, he’d said, he and his older brother Junior worked for their father in a lumberyard.
“Junior and I would get in a fight, like boys do,” he said, “and Papa would get mad because we weren’t working.” His father, a lumber inspector and Baptist preacher, was apparently a stern taskmaster and intolerant of idling. He likely instilled in my father his strong work ethic.
After his family moved to Marion, he found a different kind of work.
“When I was a boy,” he said, “I worked in the cornfields for Fate Morgan on Morgan Straight.”
I recognized his employer’s name. Once a financial and industrial magnate in Marion, he had been a prominent citizen and vast landholder. Though this man died two decades before my birth, his name was still remembered in the town. “Morgan Straight,” as it was colloquially called, was located within walking distance of my family’s street. This straightaway had once been a lonesome stretch of Highway 70, bordered by cornfields. In recent years, however, these cornfields had made way for restaurants and a strip mall.
“In the morning,” my father continued, “a man named McMahan would pick me and four or five others up in a wagon. I worked daylight till dark. I shucked corn, hoed corn, and weeded behind the plows.”
“That must have been exhausting work,” I said, “especially out in the hot sun.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“What were you paid?” I asked.
“I made a dollar a day,” he said.
My father was never averse to hard work. Through the years, he labored in hosiery mills as a machine fixer. These mills were usually uncomfortably warm, noisy with knitting machine chatter, and stuffy with the odor of machine oil and cotton dust, which probably contributed to his emphysema. And though he often quipped before he left for work, “Well, let’s go back to the salt mines,” he took pride in his skills as a machine fixer and seemed to enjoy his job.
As we sat on the front porch that day and talked, I suddenly realized why my father had never cared for gardening, and frankly, I couldn’t blame him. He’d had his fill of it when he was a boy, working daylight till dark in the cornfields on Morgan Straight.
Julia Nunnally Duncan is author of 10 books of prose and poetry. Her Tennessee roots run deep through her father’s family, natives of Newcomb. She enjoys writing about family history and her childhood in a Western North Carolina mill town.