With apologies to Ray Kinsella….
Grandpa, people will come Grandpa. They’ll come to your garden for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you pick the turnip greens, you’ll say. It’s only 50 cents per pound. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the garden; bend way over in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. And they’ll pick greens and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. This field, these greens: it’s a part of our past, Grandpa. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Grandpa. People will most definitely come.
This was another busy weekend in the garden with my grandfather. When I arrived Saturday morning, there were eight cars parked in his driveway and the garden was full of people picking greens on a beautiful autumn day. Most were picking for the third or fourth time this season, filling their freezers with enough mustard, turnip, and collard greens to satisfy their cravings through the winter and getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner. Some were first-timers, having heard from friends and relatives that there’s an old man, right there in East Point, who sells the best greens available for just 50 cents a pound. And they pull into the driveway and look down at the garden, amazed to see this outpost of agriculture just ten minutes from downtown Atlanta.
One of my chief joys is working unobtrusively on some task in the garden, while soaking in the sounds and conversations of the folks who come to my grandfather’s to pick fresh greens. While I gleaned the last of the peppers from the vines and dismantled the plant supports, laughter and the chords of community wafted on the breeze from the turnip green fields to the pepper rows.
Grandparents bring grandchildren down to the garden and teach them how to choose the best leaves, but more importantly, they talk to them about what it was like when they were growing up, when their grandmother cooked the greens, and how it was back then. Sometimes, grandchildren come to pick greens for their grandmothers, who are invalids, in the hospital, in the nursing home, or otherwise shut-in.
Old men and women, who can barely walk without assistance, bring younger companions to help them pick. Although it takes about six pounds of greens to fill a good-sized stock pot, some of these people only pick two or three pounds. It’s not the greens they want; it’s the taste of the greens, and the memories it brings of their childhood and their mama’s cooking. They come to grandpa’s more for the experience of picking greens one more time, for feeling the autumn sun on their backs and feeling the tender leaves snap crisply off the plant, than for the food itself. They just have to have them.
I like to listen to neighbors greet one another from across the rows, giving each other advice on where the best, least-picked greens are to be found, and swapping recipes for heaping, steaming feasts of southern mixed greens. They catch up on one another’s lives, discuss the happenings of their church congregation, compare notes on the younger generation’s woes and shortcomings.
They speak with pride of being raised in the country, of growing up without conveniences and learning to make do with what the planting season brought them. They are proud to know things that are no longer intergenerational common knowledge, such as the proper way to can vegetables, and they are proud of being strong, regardless of their degree of physical strength; strong in heart, strong in heritage, strong in memories.
By the time the garden was closed and the sun was setting on Saturday evening, the plants were stipped of their greens, denuded stalks reaching out for lost leaves that had filled bags and baskets. The fields were silent in the autumn stillness, and empty of people. They had left with bags full of their green treasures, and with hearts full of treasured memories.