Tuesday, September 17, 1996
Dad's garden: A suburban tale of plenty

The Cincinnati Enquirer

My dad used to plant a wonderful garden. Nice neat rows, straight as an arrow. Then he would lose interest.

The details fell to my mother. Mom did the weeding and watering and staked up the vines with old nylon stockings. Suburbanites, not farmers, we never had a big garden, but it was amazingly fruitful. We used to say that Dad had a green thumb. We did not say that with enthusiasm.

My brothers and I could never figure out how he chose his crops. There was, for instance, the Year of the Gourds. I don't know how much you know about gourds, but they are not good for anything. They're billed as decorative, but it would be a desperate decor, if you ask me, that would be improved by a gourd.

You can't eat them, and although the seed packet said that they often are used for vessels and utensils, we never stumbled upon an occasion that seemed to call for chips and onion dip out of a gourd.

Improperly handled, the instructions said, they might be poisonous. Hollowing them out to make a tea set sounded highly improper to us. So we picked them, and put them in a dry place. ''Waste not, want not'' is probably on our family crest.

The great gourd-o-rama

We had hundreds of gourds, ugly and warty-looking. We tried to give them away, but nobody else wanted them either. Finally, we started hiding them in the cars of visitors. People learned to look in the back seat before they left.

''Oh, you are too kind,'' they'd say, ''we'll never, uh, use all these beautiful gourds.'' The only useful thing about the gourds was that they were good practice for the yellow wax beans and, the following year, the bread-and-butter pickles.

The Great Yellow Wax Bean Harvest had a promising start. At least they are edible. Anything you can do with green beans, you can do with yellow wax beans. Of course, they just don't taste as good as green beans, and we asked Dad why he chose the yellow ones.

''I like them,'' he said.

We took yellow wax beans to every imaginable covered-dish event. Cooked with ham. With onions. With mushroom soup. We combined them with just about everything except gourds. We even took them to the bereaved. I'm not proud of this, but none of us could bear to just throw them away.

The following year when we saw him looking through seed catalogs, we begged, ''Please, Dad, can't you plant something we like this year?'' He looked offended as though he hadn't noticed that we were the scourge of the casserole patrol. As though he hadn't noticed that everybody who came to our house that summer locked their cars as soon as they pulled into the driveway.

''How about cucumbers?'' he said.

''How about tomatoes? Or corn on the cob?'' we countered.

The thing about cucumbers, Dad said, is that they are really pickles. My mom pointed out that they don't just grow up to be pickles. Somebody has to encourage them, she said desperately.

It was too late. The seeds were in the ground.

Bread-and-butter pickles

We love our mother, and we tried to eat as many cucumbers as we could. We peddled them by the bushel to friends and neighbors, who were relieved to see that we were not trying to palm off gourds or yellow wax beans.

We just couldn't keep ahead of the crop. My mother finally called us together and said we would have to take stronger measures. We would have to make pickles. As the family bookworm, I was sent to the library to read up on botulism.

For a whole week, my mother made something called Bread and Butter Pickles from a recipe my grandmother, my dad's mom, gave her. Grandma swore that my dad loved them.

Nobody loved them, including my dad. But our friends were very good about opening their hearts (and their cars) to this new crop. We believe they did it for the Mason jars, which cost a fortune.

My father died last year. This is the first harvest without him. We all cope with grief in different, often trivial ways. Myself, I planted a garden.

And my friends have learned to look before they sit in the back seats of their cars.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.