Garden Rows of Memory

When I was a wee lad, my grandpa gave me a whole row of his garden for my very own.

He always grew a garden. It was out to the west of the house where I live now. He had an old Montgomery Ward tiller and would plough rows one after another, then grow all manner of vegetables that Ma Faye would cook or can or we’d eat right there under the sun. He had a little chair under a nearby tree where he’d sit and wipe the sweat form his face in the summer.

I don’t remember what I planted, and I am probably confusing things he grew with my own. It was a very long time ago. But I can still taste the stinging crunch of radish straight from the soil. Wash them off? A brush up and down the pants leg was plenty good enough, but Ma Faye would catch me sometimes and make me go to the faucet under the old cistern to clean them properly.

And the corn! Oh, the delightful sweet corn that he grew. Now and then he’d pick the ears and let me have one, and he’d take one, and we’d eat them raw right there between the rows of his little garden. I am certain the sun was brighter when we did, the air more crisp and pure and the days completely magical.

I do remember picking out the weeds and fertilizing. I think I may have planted corn, too, but I can’t be sure. He was a hard man, in many regards, soft as a marshmallow in others. He chewed me out good one time because I picked a wild flower from the yard to give to the old woman, told me in no uncertain terms that next time I wanted to give my grandma a flower, take her outside and give it to her while it was still in the ground.

In the complete obverse, he could sit in a patch of river cane which we were cutting for basket weaving and tell me how God gave us the cane as a gift, like tobacco and bahjootah and Bloodweed for snakebite.

Emile “Biz” Stouff had more workshops than any man ought to aspire to. He had a metal working shop, a woodworking shop and a jewelry working shop. There was also an old barn which once held livestock, but not in my lifetime. I used to go in there and poke through the remains of ancient hay, and could still smell them, musky and delightful.

There was still an outhouse in the yard when I was little, and I was forbidden to enter it because, as he said, “Ain’t no sense in going in there when we have indoor plumbing in this house.” But I’d sneak in anyway, pulling the blackberry shoots away and yanking open the door. I would peer down into the darkness of that round hole in the wooden seat and wonder, did anyone ever get eaten by the monster that surely lived down in that bottomless chasm?

The old man was uptown, because he had a television antenna with a motor on it. At home, we had to go turn ours now and then to catch the stations we wanted to see. The galvanized pole had a lever handle on it to turn it so that you could get Baton Rouge one way, Lafayette the other. But the grandparents had a box on top of the television that would turn the antenna for you. They also had a color set long before we did. I think I was a teenager before we got a color set. Before that, we had an old Catalina TV and stereo console. I listened to the first record I ever bought on that stereo, I think it was C.W. McCall’s “Convoy.”

Well, I never pined for a Red Ryder BB gun or talked a kid into getting his tongue frozen on a flagpole, but I had a pretty great childhood. The older members of my generation tell me my dad, uncle and grandpa were a lot rougher on the young ‘uns before I came along. Mom and Dad were married 18 years before I, their only son, burst onto the scene. By then, I’m told, they had mellowed quite a bit.

I guess it’s true, but I remember some pretty good parties when the Texas Stouffs would come visit the Charenton Stouffs, or vice versa. My kin didn’t drink regularly, but when they got down to it, they didn’t play around, coming from an ethic of never leaving a job half done. Invariably, there’d be a jam session every other night of the visit, since most of the family had musical talent, something I got cheated out of. With MaFaye on the organ, the men playing guitar and often my cousin Lynne singing beautifully, they’d make music into the wee hours of the night and into morning. Those were happy times.

I’m told that my biological grandfather, Nicholas Leonard Stouff Sr., went on a fishing trip with Dad and my adopted grandpa once. Recall, my grandpa and adopted grandpa were brothers, and my grandma and adopted grandmother were sisters, so the bloodline is still legit.

Anyway, they loaded up the truck and took off, but what Mr. Nick didn’t realize at the time was that it was really hard to get to the fishing hole, because there were entirely too many Jax signs impeding the trip. It was well after noon before they arrived. He took out his old rod with the open-faced bait reel, made an angry, over-wrought cast which resulted in the worst birds’ nest of line you could imagine. Figuring the fishing trip was shot, they packed him back into the truck and headed home, but those darned Jax signs kept getting in the way.

At one point, I’m told, Mr. Nick was sitting at a corner table cutting line out of his reel with a pocket knife and mumbling, “Buy a fishing license, buy gas for the truck, all to go beer drinking…”

They were good people, those old men and women. They were old by the time I came into the world, but Ma Faye would still go out in the yard and do splits to entertain me. Once they were burning some brush in the back yard and I got to playing with sticks in the fire while they were back in the house. Somehow I got the grass going, and the blaze was heading straight for the aforementioned barn. I tried to get the hose, but it was too short. A couple of trips to the faucet with a small bucket proved futile, at best, so I had to choke my shame down and run in to tell the old man his barn was about to burn down.

After he had extinguished the flame he turned on I, the little arsonist, and demanded to know how the fire got from way over yonder to almost turning the barn into charcoal.

I remember thinking about it hard and said, “The wind changed.”

They knew of course I was lying through my teeth, but hustled into the house without another word. It was many years before I realized they made such a hasty exit so they could laugh hysterically out of sight of me, and just hope the trauma of nearly burning down the old man’s barn was enough to keep me from playing with fire again.

It was.

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