Since receiving the first advanced copy of my cookbook a couple weeks ago I have been thinking about my dad a lot. When I first signed my book deal my dad was very proud. He never expressed his pride with a huge smile or a congratulatory hug. Instead, I could tell he was trying to process the idea of his daughter being an author by taking in a deep breath and staring at me in a way that affirmed. There was a mutual understanding, and it seemed to me that it was not just about my success but his too. After all, both he and my mom sacrificially paved the way for us kids to have a better life than they themselves did. They considered this as one of their purposes in life -for their ceiling to be our floor.
After my dad graduated from high school he became a gardener and landscaper. My earliest memory of my father was of him tending his vegetable garden in North Seattle. He grew organic vegetables from seed before it was cool to grow-your-own vegetables as a way to feed our family. Gardening and harvesting vegetables and fruit was a viable way to feed six growing kids very inexpensively, and he was good at it.
Eating homegrown lettuce, kale, broccoli, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, radishes, beets, squash, zucchini, Swiss chard, cucumbers, corn, potatoes, apples, cherries, plums, grapes, and strawberries was something I always took for granted. I never appreciating my dad for his way of providing because I thought it was strange that we were the only family I knew of that grew their own food. Everyone else I knew bought their produce from the store. But as I grew older I did appreciate his gardening, which I never seemed to have a knack for.
Halfway through writing and photographing my cookbook my dad suddenly passed away in an accident. From the time of his death until now I have thought about him, often wishing he was still with us so that he could see a finished copy. With the launch of the book tomorrow I am still very sad that my dad is not here to experience the joy of this major milestone in my life.
In honor of my dad, with the help of my kids and mom, we decided to plant a vegetable and fruit garden. For some people planting a garden is no big deal, but for me I’ve been afraid of planting a garden because in the past when I’ve tried, everything died. The container herb garden I keep on my deck has been the only exception.
The other night my mom stopped by her old house, which she and my dad had lived in all of my life, and brought home some Swiss chard leaves she picked off from the only thing left of dad’s 200 ft. x 10 ft. abandoned garden. I was surprised that a plant my dad planted years ago was still producing edible healthy leaves. This seemed so bizarre yet I knew it was very special. For the last year and a half, since dad’s been gone, this plant survived on its own.
With only my mom and I home for dinner, we made Swiss chard wraps with steamed rice and miso paste. It was a bit of a somber moment as we both ate in silence thinking of my dad. The next day I thought about that orphaned Swiss chard plant so I drove over to my old house and dug it up and brought it home and planted it in my mom’s garden which was filled with flowers and fruit bushes brought from her home or purchased at a local nursery. When Mom saw what I had done, she cut all the leaves back telling me that dad always told her to cut the leaves when you uproot a vegetable to help it with shock. I have no idea if there is any validity to this but my dad always seemed to know what he was doing. I liked that she was taking charge of this vegetable plant – I just knew my dad would have been very proud of her and I was happy to have a part of my dad with us in our home.
Having one garden is nice but having two is so much nicer! So with my husband’s help, he built a garden box for the kids and I to plant some vegetables by seed as well as some tomato starts. After clearing out some nasty weeds, blackberry bushes, and the ‘never-goes-away’ Morning Glory, we filled the box up with good soil. After a trip to the nursery my daughters and I came home with seeds and tomato starts.
The kids labeled wooden sticks as I fought with my pessimistic attitude that this was not going to work. We spent the entire Memorial Day weekend working on our garden project. After planting the tomatoes, my daughter Mimi and I read each seed packet very carefully and followed the instructions for each type of vegetable. As if my dad were there with me I said quietly to myself, “Ok dad, I am going to need your help with this because I don’t know what I’m doing.” The peace I felt after I said this really made me feel close to my dad.
Today when I went to check on are vegetable garden I saw tiny little radish sprouts barely out of ground and felt a huge sense of relief. These little sprouts mean so much more than food to feed my family, they are part of an on-going journey I am on.
The last couple years have been such an emotional journey for me. Even though my dad is not here, in a way he is. These edible memorial gardens are in remembrance of my dad. By incorporating flowers and a singular Swiss chard from my father’s garden, and planting new seeds while passing on my dad’s love of gardening to my kids, I’ve honored his memory in a beautiful way. I can tell it is having an impactful healing effect on me also. What I love most about these gardens is that it feels like dad is still feeding us like he used to all those years. Homegrown vegetables I once couldn’t appreciate in my youth have now become cherished reminders of his love for us every time we eat them.
Perhaps you’ve lost a dear loved one and have been thinking of ways to keep their memory alive. May I suggest planting a tree, a blooming perennial plant, or a vegetable garden? There is something very therapeutic to see nature’s way of bringing new life and growth into the world. You can start as little as one plant or even a seed. What you decide to add makes it special and will keep your loved one’s memory alive and ever present.
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