friend of 52 years lost her father, Earl, three weeks ago. His
death was completely unexpected. Since the age of four, Kathi,
and I were neighbors and best friends, so I too had a close
relationship with “Kathi’s dad. His ready smile and constant
happy whistling, greatly define my childhood recollections of him.
Earl drove a Sunbeam Bread truck with a big picture of Little
Miss Sunbeam on the side and that whistling announced his arrival home
each night. Although Earl and I now live a great distance from
each other, in recent years, I have enjoyed several visits with him.
Much of our talk centered on his mammoth garden, at a farm just
outside of my hometown, from which he sold vegetables to area
restaurants, as well as keeping friends and family supplied with the
all the freshest produce they could consume. As we talked, his
lined face was animated with excitement. I saw the love of this
garden in his eyes.
In summers he set up a small produce stand near the farm, where locals could buy from the many baskets heaped with freshly picked ripe red tomatoes, fat shiny watermelon, heavily netted golden cantaloupe, squash of several colors and shapes and young, crisp cucumbers. Earl had always been a gardener, but this farm garden became his full time passion after retirement from Sunbeam. He was a quiet man, but playful. He loved animals and working with the earth. The huge compost pile in his backyard next to the rabbit hutch had been an oddity in our neighborhood in the late 40’s & early 50’s. Earl and his wife, Bobbi, had virtually grown up together. They had married in their late teens & lived together for 63 years.
Kathi has never been in partnership with another person. She has continued to live in our home state of Oregon, in a city only a few hours away from her folks, so perhaps she has remained in a way, the little girl daughter. Her father’s death has been painful for her.
In our talks about Earl’s death and the process she is going through, I have been amazed at our different responses to the loss of a loved one. I, who immerse myself in emotion, find great solace in allowing myself to deeply feel sadness. Grieving and reminiscence are my friends.
Kathi told me that soon after his death, the seeds Earl had ordered from numerous catalogs began to arrive. Before she could say more, I immediately pictured my own response, not the complete garden Earl would have planted, but a smaller version, or at least a few plants. A memorial garden spot. The rest of the seeds would remain a last connection to him that I would cherish. As I leafed through the packets, I would remember him pouring over the catalogs during gloomy Oregon winter months, knowing how he looked forward to spring planting and then being focused on the tender care and feeding of his fruits and vegetables. Later the staggered harvest times and the rewards of eating the best tomatoes and melons I’ve ever tasted. Earl was in contact with melon growers around the world. They shared seeds and stories. I first tasted green cantaloupe developed in Israel in his home picked an hour earlier from his garden. You could not visit him without leaving his house with literally a crate of produce.
As kids Kathi and I often went out to the farm, which was the home of Earl’s folks at that time. We entertained ourselves by picking buckets of tomatoes and lugging them up the hill, to lie on our backs and cloud watch, while devouring every one. In late summer, during watermelon season, we could walk out into the vine-covered patch and break open ripe melons, scooping out and eating only the warm, sugary hearts. I can still hear that wet/crisp splitting sound as the melons broke open and feel the sticky juice running down my arms as I stuffed handfuls of succulent fruit into my mouth.
Boxes of apples, melons, tomatoes or some other fruit or vegetable of the season was always stacked in the mudroom at their house when we were kids. When any of us came traipsing into the house we could help ourselves. Kathi and her brothers, as well as their friends could eat as much as they wanted anytime and none of us ever thought of candy bars. These would be my memories as I leafed through the seed packets. Beloved reminders. So I was shocked and saddened when Kathi said, that as the seeds arrived, she of course, sent them right back. I said nothing, but experienced a stab of hurt and my own sense of sad loss.