Keith Eubanks II

In the Farmer’s Garden

In Dreams on April 8, 2011 at 4:08 am

“The best place to seek God is in a garden.  You can dig for him there.”  ~George Bernard Shaw

I like pulling weeds. I like to get my hands close to the earth and work the roots out of the ground. My knees creak and complain and my back stiffens. But this isn’t pain. It’s discomfort – and there is a difference. The mind can move beyond discomfort, and if it does, it can achieve a focused state of awareness – a lightness of being. It is a metaphor for life.

The mind wants this – but it fights it.

I focus, not on the number of weeds that seem to have invaded my backyard, but on the one in front of me. And then the next – and the next. Each one becomes, for a moment, the focus of  my intent. My body complains as I shift my weight to the other knee. I work through the discomfort. Discomfort is noise. Distraction. It says, “Enough already. You don’t really have to do this. Not now. You can always do it tomorrow.”

But there is no tomorrow.  And I don’t like the noise. So I push through it.

I smell the dirt and feel it under the nails of my hands. The weeds smell bright and fecund. The sun warms my skin, and the sweat on the back of my neck cools me.  I am for a long time alone, and the pile of weeds I have pulled grows larger.

And then my daughter, Madeline, joins me.

“What are you doing, Dad?” she asks, though what I am doing is obvious. It is a child’s way of beginning a conversation. They state the obvious. We lose the ability to do this over time. We even avoid it.

“Pulling weeds,” I say as I pull another  from the hard ground.

“Can I help?”

I show her how to grab the stem of the weed and gently test its depth. She twists and tugs and there is an audible pop as the roots come out of the ground.

“Very good, Maddy. That’s it. Perfect.”

And we pull the weeds in silence.

After a time she stands, stretching her body. “That’s hard work,” she says. I nod my head and laugh.

And I am back in Tranquillity, on my grandfather’s farm. We are standing in a cotton field in front of the house – perfect rows of young cotton plants stretch across the fertile farmland.  I am a boy, not much older than Maddy is now. The sun is about to set. There is a burnt and golden rim of color working its way across the wisps of cloud overhead. A beautiful painting on a magnificent stretch of canvas. I am holding a hoe in my hand, its handle polished smooth from years of use. I press my hand into my lower back and stretch.

“This is back breaking work,” I say.  My parents and grandparents laugh. We are glowing, all of us, in the evening light. I have been chopping cotton, my grandfather teaching me how to use the garden hoe to move the earth beneath the roots of the weeds, and pull them from the ground. I had worked my way down a row and back, my body bent uncomfortably as I worked the hoe into the ground. My grandfather had made it look easy – effortless. I was enthusiastic. There was money to be made, and as I made my way down the row I began to think of how I might spend it. As I made my way back up the other side the novelty had worn off.

It was back-breaking work.

Painful blisters were already forming on my soft hands. My grandfather looks at them intently, mildly amused. They will harden into callouses, he tells me. And then he shows me his hands. They are like thick tanned saddle leather, smooth and strong and hard. I have never seen hands like them since, and when I think of him, I see his hands first, then his broad nose set firmly into his sun weathered face.

I look at my daughter, who has now occupied herself with a short shovel she found leaning against the wall. She thinks she has found a better, easier way to take the weeds down, but I stop her.

“You have to get them by the roots,” I tell her. “If you don’t, they’ll grow back.”  She doesn’t seem interested in the weeds anymore and I don’t blame her. Not one bit. But she wants to help, so I tell her she can use the shovel to refill a hole she dug in the ground a few weeks earlier. This is more to her liking and she begins to shove dry earth into the hole.

I watch her for a moment, intent in her work. I think my grandfather would have really liked her.

I worked that field in front of my grandfather’s house, earning some money as I cleared the weeds row by row. The blisters on my hands broke and dried, forming the promised callouses. I was proud of them. And my grandfather was proud of me. I could see his approval in the way he looked at me, talked with me, but it was my grandmother that told me how he had bragged about the work I was doing. I had surprised him, I think.

I didn’t finish the field, though, and I guess it still bothers me. I made it around the backside, near the fort my uncle built in a large tree at the edge of the canal bank. I remember that it was time to run the water and it was my uncle that finished the field. Something of my accomplishment, I think, was tarnished – at least in my mind.

My other daughters have joined me in the backyard now. Abby is almost five years old and Katie is almost three. Maddy is pulling weeds again and the little girls are helping – pulling the leafy tops off  with their little hands and throwing them into the pile that is growing larger still. They have found the shovel and are trying to dig a hole, without much success. Some sparrows fly onto the fence, curious.They move to the roof  of the house, and finally into the air. The girls love the birds. They point and call out to me, needing me to share this wonder with them.

And I do.

But I am a hunter on a great adventure. My air rifle is loose in my hands as I move slowly down the length of fence that covers our approach to the apricot tree. My cousin, Greg, is leading the way. He is a hunter, too. And he shoots with deadly accuracy. We are paid by my grandmother to keep the sparrows and blackbirds out of her fruit trees – especially the apricot tree. She makes the best pies and cobblers from these apricots, but the birds are relentless. Greg and I kneel in the dirt and pump our guns. We peer down the sights of the gun barrels, looking.

But there is nothing. Either we have killed every bird in Tranquillity, or they are feeding off someone else’s trees. We move across the farm, checking each tree, each fence post.

Nothing.

And then close to the house a sound. There is a large tree in the center of a garden near the house and in this tree there is a bird. One bird.

A mockingbird.

There is a pause, a hesitation. We had been told by our grandmother that we could kill any bird on the farm, but not the mockingbird. She loved them. I can still hear her singing, “Hush little baby, don’t you cry, Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don’t fly . . . ”

The summer sun was bright and hot and heavy. Our guns potent in our hands. And there was competition, and a desire to kill. The bird moved from branch to branch, singing. We both aimed our guns and we both fired, and after a short pause, the mockingbird fell from the tree.  Dead. We both called the shot, we both fired our guns. And I’m pretty sure Greg still thinks, to this day, that he killed that bird. I was just as certain that I had killed it.

But it doesn’t matter. The intent was plain and it was in us both.

The bird was there on the ground, its song silenced. And there was the realization that we had gone too far.

There was a garden, and in that garden there was a tree. And in that tree, the only thing forbidden to us. And we had taken it, of our own free will. So we hid our sin, burying it deep in the ditch beneath the tree house where it could never be found.

It is an old and familiar story.

And the days passed by, and with each day it seemed that we had hidden well enough this thing we had done.

We walked and hunted and played in the farmer’s garden.

One afternoon he found me alone with my gun, sitting on a low fence. I hadn’t heard him approach and his strong leathery hand on my shoulder frightened me.  He asked me about the mockingbird – what had happened to it- as if I were its keeper.

How could he know, I wondered? Who is this man that knows the number of every bird that falls in his garden?

And at first I lied, as if I had never seen a mockingbird.  But he obviously knew the truth. I might even have blamed Greg, freely giving him the credit he had once demanded. My grandfather looked at me, not unkindly, but in a very direct way, and said, “I won’t tell your grandmother -it would break her heart- but don’t you boys ever kill another mockingbird.”

And he walked away.

I asked him, some time later -long after my grandmother had passed away- how he had known. And he told me, with a gleam in his eye how they had flooded the canals to irrigate the cotton and the bird, perhaps not buried as well as we had hoped, floated to the top of the water. Like a witness to the crime against it, the bird and become entangled in the brush along the edge of the canal where it was eventually discovered – its wound an obvious, though silent, indictment.

I pull the weeds and the girls watch the birds and dig holes in the ground. I don’t kill the birds anymore. I like to watch them. There’s one bird that sings to me every morning, and it is this song that brings me to consciousness as the sky slowly lightens. It is the same song every morning, but it makes me happy. It reminds me that I am a part of nature, and that we all have something important to do.

This bird? He gets to sing. I get to teach.

My hands are getting sore, but I keep pulling. There is cold beer in the refrigerator. I start to think about how it will taste. How easy it would be to just call it a day.  But the temptation reminds me of a story my grandmother told me. It has become “the family story” for me.

A story of origin. Mythology.

There once was, in my grandparents home, a formal portrait hanging in the hallway. They are both seated and smiling in front of a pale blue background, my grandmother’s hair puffed up tall on top of her head in the style that older ladies seem to favor. I don’t know why it is that picture, that image, that I see when I think of them. It is so contrived. The picture, in many ways, could be of anyone’s grandparents.

Maybe the picture is stuck there in my mind because it is so far removed from the people I really knew.

It was my grandmother that told me that she and my grandfather had eloped. I remember being surprised, even as a young boy. This was the woman that gave me Lifesavers in church to keep me awake, or when I could no longer keep my eyes open, she would rub my head gently in her hands. My grandmother would not tolerate foul language and rewarded my cousins and me with money for accurately quoting scripture from the Bible. Even the simplest verses like – “Jesus wept,” the shortest verse in the Bible – was good for some pocket change, though that verse usually indicated that we had exhausted our reservoir of scripture.

But she did elope.

She ran off one day with Alex Eubanks and didn’t return home for two days. When she finally came back she told her mother in way of explanation, “Momma, I got married.”

“Well, you better have, staying out all night with that man,” her mother replied. And that was the humor I came to know so well  in my grandmother’s house.

They didn’t actually live together for a while, my grandfather working at various jobs on a number of farms. I have heard stories of him cooking beans over a fire and eating them right out of the can.

Sometime later, they were working together at a roadside gas station and diner. I don’t remember where, but it was probably Texas. They didn’t have a lot of money and they had no car. Most of the family had already made their way to California. One day a couple of traveling salesmen stopped at the diner. They were on their way to California and my grandmother had an idea. “Al,” she said later that night, “go ask those salesmen if we can get a ride with them to El Centro.”

The salesman said yes.

So they quit their jobs and left that next day for California taking only what they could carry with them.  I think of my grandparents and those two traveling salesmen like they are characters out of a Steinbeck novel-  chasing the dream and promise of a state where ripe fruit falls from over-laden trees.

A land of milk and honey.

My grandmother told me that Pabst beer was popular back then and that “every time those salesmen passed a billboard that said ‘Time for a Pabst’ they would stop and have a beer. It’s a wonder we made it to California.”

So it was a leap of faith and two traveling salesmen  that brought my grandparents -and all of us that would follow- to El Centro, California. My grandfather picked fruit, plowed fields, and worked until he could one day buy his own place, which he found in Tranquillity – a small farming community in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

I know he loved my grandmother – more so now that I am a man looking back on them as they once were. We had frequent family dinners at my grandmother’s house, and my grandfather -usually out on the tractor- was often late since he worked through the last light of the day.

Grandpa would come through the door like John Wayne – bigger than life – his face covered in dirt. I remember him grabbing my grandmother and forcing his kisses on her as she struggled, laughing, trying to keep the dirt off her face. There were stories and laughter, and I can’t remember a single argument at that table.

But I do remember tears.

I was there, sitting at that same table with my father as grandpa signed the papers that leased his land to another farmer. He couldn’t do it anymore, and after he signed those papers I saw him wipe the tears out of his eyes. He still looked the same to me, but he wasn’t. My grandmother’s death had aged him, and made him sentimental in a way particular to old men.

My own marriage -my first marriage- was unravelling around me. I remember sitting on the couch in his living room with my first wife as my grandfather talked about the many wonderful years he had shared with my grandmother. He hoped the same for us, he said, but I knew that was never going to happen. That kind of marriage requires certain qualities neither of us had.

He died returning from an elk hunting trip in Montana. Even at his age he had managed to kill an elk. My grandfather had a heart attack in a parking lot in Salt Lake City as he was leaving a grocery store. I came to the hospital and sat with him. I told him what he meant to me, I prayed for him, kissed his forehead, and I don’t know if he heard a word I said, but he squeezed my hand. His were still strong and smooth as tanned leather. I wept at his funeral. My father, sitting in front of me, reached his hand back and patted my leg.

“This isn’t a tragedy,” I told my sisters, trying to lend some kind of perspective to our grief. He had a long life, and died doing exactly what he wanted to be doing. Grandpa loved those hunting trips and I admired him for that last elk. But the man in box, at the center of all this attention, that wasn’t him. Not the way I remembered him, and I saw the entire funeral as a last and final indignity.

That is why I cried.

I would have rather seen him atop a large funeral pyre, his body consumed by fire. His ashes forever a part of the land he so lovingly worked. I imagined a tall sentinel of smoke rising into the sky far above the San Joaquin Valley – anouncing the death of a great man. Truly, one of the last of his kind.

He talked to me about farming once. He said, “there is no greater life.” But he also said that the industry had changed, and the small farm was dying. He was nostalgic, and a little sad. But I keep thinking about what he said. For him, there was no greater life. That’s how he appraised his time here and that is how he lived it.

And he lived it.

My daughter, Abby, is telling me she is dirty and that she needs a bath. I could use a shower myself. I stand up and stretch my back and remember an old feeling I haven’t felt in a long while – the pleasure of physical work. A happy kind of exhaustion.

The kids are running around the yard. Abby is dancing to a song only she can hear, and Katie is adding sticks and rocks to the pile of weeds happy in her work. And my grandfather is standing there in the middle of all of this looking at me.

“I like pulling weeds,” I say out loud.

And I hear him say, “you can take the boy away from the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.”

Madeline grabs my hand looking at the large pile of weeds we have pulled together. “Is it enough, Dad?” she asks.

I look at my grandfather. He is smiling.

Yeah, Maddy,” I say, “it’s enough.”

And it is.

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  1. What a beautiful story Keith. I never knew you had all this in you while we were housemates and friends living in that townhouse in Fresno back in 1981. Great to see you doing so well with a wonderful family and position. I am living in Fresno Tower District and I’m engaged to a wonderful woman. I miss those days we all had with You, Danny and I living it up in our first place away from home. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving and hope to talk to you sometime. Take Care, Darrell Pretzer.

  2. Suzanne and I had “job” one summer hoeing cotton for your father. I think we might have made it the the end of one row but for a weed taller than the two of us. It was in her row and I was going to let her take care of it but I went to help and we both pulled on that thing until our whole bodies throbbed. I don’t remember who won, the weed or us, I do remember we didn’t go back the next day.

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