NOTE: This piece was written 29 years ago and is being shared today in honor of my father, Charles James O’Connor, Jr. who read and appreciated the essay when it was published. Dad passed away a few years ago, short of his 92nd birthday. This is also for three special young women—Dusty, Bonnie and Shannon—who carry my heart with them always. —M.O.
I force my foot down on the shovel which splits the newly softened earth. My daughter and I have been watering this spot for a week. The careful preparation is paying huge dividends for one of our tired backs. The abandoned furniture, busted fence and stubborn weeds have all been cleared from this ten by twenty-foot patch of land to the east of our house, commonly known as “the side yard”.
I manage to dislodge a hunk of clay that looks as if it hasn’t seen the light of day since before the Stone Age—or at least the Truman administration. “This is dirt from my backyard”, I mumble to no one in particular. I’m not sure if I’m more amazed at the sight of dirt on my hands or from the words “my backyard” crossing my lips.
You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I’m not exactly a backyard kind of guy. My idea of a journey to the great outdoors is packing the family in the van and heading off to Dodger Stadium. If I decide to live a little dangerously, I might stop and find out how much the scalpers are charging for the really good seats. As an adventurer, I wouldn’t know Marlin Perkins from Marlon Brando.
To me the backyard has always been the place where the trash is stored until garbage day. It’s a field which requires occasional watering, mowing, and once-a-year raking. I suppose I have always associated a back yard with the sense of duty. Why this is I am not altogether sure. But I have often wondered why people fuss so over their prize petunias and rustic rose bushes. Some actually talk to their azaleas as if cooing to a newborn: “Does my planty-wanty want more water-otter?”
Good grief! Can’t those Better Homes and Gardens types get a life? When I’m President, my first official act will be to pass a national bill requiring mandatory Astroturf installation over any plant with whom anyone is on a first name basis. Where’s a congressman when you need one?
This introductory exposition is my simple way of sharing the relative unimportance the process of photosynthesis has thus far played in my life.
It was the first week of August, a scorching afternoon. My wife Sally and I along with our five-year old daughter Dusty been home a little over five weeks of a planned six month hiatus from ministry touring. I was out back hand watering the lawn and daydreaming—considering changes the coming homebound months might bring.
The appended nozzle was set on “light spray”. The parched grass was grateful for the gentle acknowledgment. The daisies appeared to lean into the mist. From a tree branch above, a sparrow sang. An industrious squirrel hauled an edible nugget up one side of our roof and down the other. A physically challenged lizard skulked clumsily in the bushes. And just when I thought for sure a Disney production number was about to break out, an audible, yet plaintive, voice whispered, “If you plant them, they will grow.”
I whirled around startled, thinking I had been alone in the yard with my waterlogged task. Even as I spun, I knew instinctively that no one would be there. Unsettled, I walked a few steps and tried reviving the tragic orange tree which sat cowering in the corner. The tree stands two feet high and is utterly barren. Looks like we won’t be buying a new juicer anytime soon.
As I took careful aim with the hose, the voice again interrupted my regularly scheduled internal programming: “If you plant them, they will grow.”
This time I turned expecting no one to be there. I was not disappointed. Instead, I gazed upon the side yard, the dog’s yard, Mandi’s yard, in a manner different from any time I had ever viewed it.
Mandi was my sister’s dog. While Kathleen was living with our family, she rescued the lively pup from the pound and named her after a favorite Barry Manilow tune. When Copacabana proved too lengthy to fit on the dog tag, however, Kathleen scanned the Greatest Hits album for other possibilities. When my sister moved to Sacramento, she brought her beloved pet with her. Mandi was a fine dog, a loyal dog, a fertilizing dog. She came and she gave without taking.
But now, months later, I saw the yard in a fresh light and knew instantly what the inner voice had been telling me. Corn. I was to clear the debris, the memories which littered this hallowed patch and move on with my life. I was to plant corn.
How did I know through this unspoken command it was corn I was supposed to plant? How did my intuition reveal it wasn’t cauliflower, broccoli, beets, radishes or rutabagas that loomed so prominently in my future? Better to ask why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; better to ask why the bumble bee can fly although aerodynamic principles say he can’t; better to ask why Gilligan’s Island is still one of the most popular television programs the world has ever known. Sometimes you simply know but can’t explain. Just to be safe I would also plant carrots.
Dad and daughter time is always special.
I instinctively understood Dusty was meant to be part of this equation. After all, this was turning into a summer of dad and daughter projects and excursions. In preparation for the imminent arrival of her brand-new brother or sister Sally and I felt it was important for me to spend some specially focused time with her. We went on family errands together to the bank, the post office, the video store. We bought Dusty’s first pets together, a couple of parakeets dubbed “Blackie” and “Cockadoodle” and proceeded to learn some finer points in animal habits and cage cleaning.
In the grocery store we began sharing decisions for product selection and she was learning to read shelf prices. She constantly reminded me of our need to save money because “We’re going to need lots of it when the baby gets here.” For my birthday she bought two tickets to see the Dodgers and Astros play. Dusty wasn’t too sure about the game but there was just enough pizza and ice cream to hold her attention for nine innings.
In light of this sweet, intimate time the decision to include her in the new garden was a simple one. She was thrilled when I suggested the project. So, Dusty and I sped off to a local nursery in search of some magic seeds. A quick trip to Target netted a plastic rake, shovel and hoe for the young farm hand. Amazingly, I already owned the tools I would need.
It took a week to soak the area and dig up the weeds and dead grass. This was the hardest part of the entire chore. Perspiration flooding through every pour, back bent like the St. Louis Arch—I soon sensed Dusty was going to need me to pitch in as well.
On the third day I was weeding, my swollen knees communing with the loose earth. I was sweating like a pig in an Oscar Mayer factory. Out of the blue Dusty returned from a toilet break with a cold liter of water for me. This was a kindness I had not prompted. I accepted her gesture gratefully, chugging half the bottle before I could even thank her. As I started to hand the water back, the voice startled me once more.
“Ease his pain.”
“W-w-what?” I stuttered. “Ease his . . . ease who’s pain?” I was frustrated and more than a little disconcerted at the reoccurrence of this disembodied voice.
“Ease his pain.”
C.J. O’Connor, Jr. as a boy
I resolved to ignore the advice, especially since I hadn’t a clue what it meant. I placed the bottle of designer water in her hand and looked up to thank her. Only—and this is the strange part of the story—it wasn’t Dusty who was holding the fluid. It was my father! But it wasn’t—and this is the really strange part of the story—the same man I had just spoken to long distance the night before. This was a younger, thinner version with significantly less snow on the ol’ rooftop.
“Thanks, Son,” he gasped, accepting the green Tupperware cup from my grasp. He drank it down in one long, thirsty gulp, then handed it back to me. I could scarcely believe my eyes. This is the man who was my dad in, say, 1965. I would have been ten, he, about thirty-nine—my age now.
Butch and Sundance looking to bust out.
“Move out of the way now,” he commanded gently. “Your mother won’t like it if I plow you under with the weeds.” He moved toward the rototiller a few feet away. Wait a minute, I thought, filtering this picture through the fading lens of memory, this is the back yard of the house I grew up in. This is the corner patch where one summer my dad and I plowed up the ground and planted our very own vegetable garden.
My dad was never much of an outdoors man. His idea of roughing it was to bring our own sandwiches and pop on the hundred-mile trips to Candlestick Park in San Francisco where we saw the Giants play. Once, I remember, we went on a father-son camping trip with the Y-Indian Guides. I recall thinking at the time how out of place and uncomfortable he looked with a soggy marshmallow on a twig, sitting around the campfire with his argyle socks falling down. Let’s face it. My dad was more a newspaper-reading-record-listening-TV- dinner-and-Lawrence Welk-watching indoor kind of guy. It was what he knew. I don’t think my grandpa took him camping much or ever taught him the intricacies of deep-sea bass fishing as a boy.
But for one golden summer my dad and I trudged out back and were men together. He did most of the spade work, we planted the seeds together, and I handled the bulk of the watering except on evenings I had a Little League game to play. I walk over to the place where the radishes grew in rows between the green onions and yellow wax chili peppers. I trip over the unraveled lace on my P.F. Flyers and land on the exact spot where our famous zucchini squash grew wild and monstrous in size. This is the year I remember most often when I look back. This is the spot I return to in my dreams.
“Dad?” I holler as a loud-engine cuts through my reverie. “Dad?” I want to tell him what this moment meant to me . . . means to me. But I am ten, I have a stupid butch haircut and don’t know the words.
The voice is Dusty’s. “Daddy, are you OK?”
I have inadvertently stepped on a shoe lace and tripped over my Reeboks which sends me flying in one direction and the plastic bottle in another. “Sure, I’m alright, Sweetheart, ” I console.
And I suppose in the truest sense I am. But there are questions to weigh, feelings to sort, and an embryonic garden in need of our attention. There is much to do before the sun sets this day.
Eight weeks have passed since that August afternoon. Our crop is nearly hip high and threatening to flower any day now. My daughter, justifiably proud of the accomplishment, continues to drag each visitor to our home out to see the tiny miracle of our back yard. She has dubbed the spot “God’s Garden” which is commemorated by a small sign to that effect along the fence. She has learned the lesson early that when you give the glory for your effort to God He has a natural incentive to make it look good.
I sit in my new lawn chair, the first I have ever owned, and watch my daughter take her turn watering our garden. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the voice and the messages delivered.
Ease his pain.
I’m not sure, but I think this refers to my father. Is there pain in his life? Are there regrets? Oh, there must be. But I hope they are not regrets about me. Sure, I didn’t exactly grow up with hiking boots in the closet or a working knowledge of power tools that would enable me to build my own carport. Despite these seeming masculine omissions of my youth, I somehow survived. And I’m living a life I wouldn’t want to trade with too many people.
We teach our children what we know. Hopefully, most of it is good. Inevitably, some of it will be inadequate. All we can do for our kids is do all we can for our kids. After that it’s all in the hands of our garden’s landlord. I make a mental note to share some of these thoughts and feelings with my dad now that I have found some of the words.
If you plant them, they will grow.
While Dusty and I were placing them in the ground I was certain this was a reference to the dried kernels of corn we had purchased. Now that I can look out upon the rows of green stalks over which Dusty and I have been given stewardship, a kernel of another kind is emerging. It wasn’t corn at all I had been told to plant. Them was referring to something much more difficult to acquire than some produce I could easily pick up at the supermarket. They is a commodity so precious we actually have no unit of measure to help convey or understand its worth.
I know that it’s more than corn we’ve been sowing. “If you plant memories, they will grow,” had been the admonition of the voice. I survey the garden again spotting Dusty and her watering can, then summon a vivid picture of a ten-year old with a desperately taped up garden hose, lost in a lyrical summer that remains sweet and pungent somewhere in the inner recesses of my heart. I can only guess how Dusty will remember this time. But I hope it’s been the kind of summer which cannot help but turn her face a smiling color any time she sinks her teeth into a nice, long, sweet ear of you-know-what. If it has, this year’s harvest will have been rich.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot. There is a new flower in our garden. Like Dusty, this one was a few weeks late in sprouting. But now that she has pushed her way toward the sunlight Bonnie Joy is more than making up for lost time. So far as we know she is strong and healthy. I am told by those who know more about these matters than I that she already possesses a distinctive and lovely bloom.
I hear the voice once more and this time I am not even startled.
“Go the distance.”
This one is a no-brainer. I understand instantly what the increasingly familiar voice has commanded. I look out on the garden and see two flowers, a rose and a rosebud, drinking in new life and reaching for the sky. I suddenly realize It’s a privilege to tend this garden and a blessing for Sally and I to watch them grow.
Lord, how they grow.