Spring is far different in Tucson than it was back home in Massachusetts. Here spring arrives slightly before the twenty-first. It is heralded in by sneezing, coughing, and watery eyes. The reason for this is that almost everything that blooms is a weed. I discovered that I’m allergic to two types of allergens. One is, of all things, cockroaches. The other is something called rabbit brush, an innocent-looking small yellow flower that grows by the roadside. Everyone in my family now has allergies, including my dog.
Back in Massachusetts, the arrival of spring is entirely different. At least for me, it was, and I think that’s due to my father. My father was born in 1913 in the town of Uxbridge and spent his life there for seventy-three years. His family had a small farm consisting of their barn, some outbuildings, and the original home that my Uncle Raymond lived in behind the main house. In addition, there was a garden, some fields, and a small apple orchard. During the Great Depression, he said that his family had it easier than people who lived in the city because they grew their own food. They also had chickens, a cow, and a workhorse named Jim. My grandfather worked in the foundry at Whitins Machine Works in the next town over in Whitinsville. This left much of the farm work to my father, leading to his great love of gardening.
As I recall, it was usually toward the end of February or the first of March when the Burpee Seed catalog came out. My father would wait for that catalog with all the anticipation of a child waiting for Santa Claus. Then, when it finally arrived, he studied it all night. I don’t remember him ordering anything from Burpee, but Burpee packets were in the outdoor shed.
Dad would start the growing season by bringing home a load of cow manure from Voss’s dairy farm down the street and spreading it on his ten-by-fourteen garden patch. Next, he’d prepare the cold frame, which we kids called Dad’s intensive care unit. A cold frame is a box on the ground covered by glass to encourage seedlings to grow with solar energy while protecting them from frost. He also had an old baby’s bathtub on stilts in which he would grow chives. In this manner, Dad saved the chives from being eaten by wild rabbits. I say wild rabbits because we also had a rabbit named Penny, but that’s another story.
When everything was ready for planting, my father told me, “Bud, go get those boxes I’ve been saving.” We would save big boxes because we were headed to Spags in Worcester. Spags was the first actual discount department store in the area. Their slogan was “No Bags at Spags.” That way, they could charge less.
So off we went to buy flowers and vegetables. Dad’s favorite flowers were petunias and chrysanthemums. But the prize of the trip was the free tomato plants. My father’s only complaint was that Spags didn’t label them, so you didn’t know what kind they were until they produced tomatoes! So we’d place everything carefully in the trunk of our big black 54’ Chevrolet sedan and go home. My father never said much of anything, but I could tell he was happy because he was smiling all the way back. Then he’d get to work.
My mother always hated the manure spreading because it stunk so bad, but it died down after a few weeks. Dad would then plant all the petunias around the outer edge of the garden. When I asked him why he said, “It’s because petunias are great for repelling pests and also attracting bees and butterflies to help with pollination.” I always thought it was just because they looked pretty.
We next got busy with the chives. I’d turn up the soil and poke holes into which Dad would put in a chive plant. When we finished, he covered it with a thick plastic tent to let the sun and heat in and keep the bugs out. Beside the chives was the cold frame. It measured three feet by four feet with an old nine-pane glass storm window for a cover. We planted carrots, beets, and radishes in it. When they got bigger, we’d transplant them into the garden. The tomatoes stayed in their planters until the ground got a bit warmer.
We had to wait a couple of weeks before the next step. But that didn’t mean there was nothing to do. Oh no! My dad would have me put on my galoshes and carry a big wicker basket over to Mr. Taft’s house. We’d ask him if it was okay if we went down to the stream on his property. Bob always said okay. He was a really nice guy. He’d give me a bag and ask me to pick him some too. For you see, he knew we would pick fiddleheads and cowslips to eat. Bob only wanted the fiddleheads, though. He’d eat them with salt and butter.
One of the springtime things that I always enjoyed was watching the daffodils and crocuses push up through the snow. I felt that they were indeed the first sign of spring. When we first moved into our house, my father planted them on the south side of the foundation for heat. Later he made and installed a large trellis made of pipes and wire. He planted English ivy to grow up it. Quite a few graduation pictures were taken there. Slowly but surely, our little ranch house became a quaint cottage.
Another thing my mother always requested in the spring was that we go out and get her a big bunch of pussy willows for the house. These we found over at West Hill Dam in a low swampy area. The Army Corps of Engineers built the dam to control water and prevent flooding in Woonsocket, RI. It made a wonderful wildlife sanctuary. My father and I would hunt and fish there in the summer and fall.
There was a time when my dad didn’t have a dog to go hunting with, so he told my mother, “I’ll take the boy and show him where to stomp around and chase out the rabbits.” She replied with a threat, “You’d better not shoot my son, or you know what will happen to you, Ralph Stanley Aldrich!” I never knew what would happen to him if he shot me, but apparently, he did know because he promised to be careful not to. So for the next two years, I was his beagle. And you know, I learned a lot about the woods and rabbits.
Finally, it was time to plant the garden in earnest. All the mystery tomatoes, the chives, and everything from the intensive care unit went in. Added to that were green peppers, lettuce, and string beans. By this time, the lilac bushes next to the garden were in bloom, and the whole thing was a beautiful sight to behold.
One day I asked my father what it was about spring that made him work so hard. As a kid, that’s what it looked like to me, work. He scratched his upper lip with his thumbnail and said, “I don’t know. It’s what I’ve done all my life. I guess watching the earth wake up does something to me. It makes me feel alive. I feel alive! That’s what I like about Spring.” Then he snuffled, kicked a dirt clog, and said, “Let’s go buy some chrysanthemums.”
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Thank you for sharing this charming slice of life. Your writing style is entertaining, and felt like I was hearing it around a campfire with good friends. ~MP~