Category Archives: grandmother

Long Row

A friend of mine will soon move to a new house and has been consumed with the process of packing for quite some time. He lamented the fact that no matter how much he gets done he continues to see piles and stacks and shelves full of things yet to be boxed. Adding to the stress, he’s nearing the semester’s end of coursework towards a Master’s degree. This combination has him overwhelmed. He complained a bit more about the work left to do.

“I’ll never finish.” he moaned after his update.

“Well.” I said. “It’s like that row of tomatoes.”

He didn’t get it.

With no idea what I meant he stared into the distance preoccupied by stress. Then, remembering similar comments of mine in the past his head whirled back towards me. “Wait, is that another Nannie thing?” he asked.

“It’s another Nannie thing.” I nodded confirmation and began my story.

My grandmother was a master gardener – not certified, but instinctual. Nannie used one green thumb in her flower beds and the other in her massive vegetable garden. It was no garden for the weak as it fed her and the families of each of her five children. All pitched in. On most evenings you could see some combination of aunts, uncles, and cousins pulling, picking, weeding, or watering somewhere along the lengthy rows.

One year Nannie planted more tomatoes than usual. It was work enough to keep vines picked clean on a normal year, but that was a good tomato year and there were additional rows. Somebody was going to have their work cut out for them.

“Somebody” that year was me and my cousin Jan.

I didn’t recall our volunteering for tomato duty. Still, Jan and I ended up on the front lines the morning Nannie called to say there were tomatoes to be picked. We walked casually towards the long rows, empty buckets swinging from our hands, not bothered in the least by a few silly tomatoes. The picking began.

“I’ll never finish.” I moaned.

Sweat dripped from Jan’s nose as she bent to pick another tomato. She seemed to be handling the season pretty well so far. She always loved tomatoes.

“I hate tomatoes.” she stood slowly with a full bucket.

Once tomato vines start producing they don’t stop so the picking was a daily chore. The first week of the season Jan and I met under the grape arbor to have a few laughs before starting. This would be fun. By the second week we weren’t laughing. This wasn’t fun.

We didn’t pick alone. Nannie was right there with us and if she wasn’t it was only because she was shelling beans, pulling corn, or freezing or canning one ripe thing or another. Weeks into the season and Nannie never faltered. Each morning she’d grab a bucket, hum a hymn, and walk methodically down a tomato row. Jan and I limped along behind her.

The rows were so long that I swore green tomatoes I passed at the beginning were ripe before I got to the end. Each tomato became a lead weight and the end of each row seemed farther away than before. Jan and I sweated, clutched our aching backs, and whined that the rows were getting longer when we weren’t looking. Nannie never complained which added to our frustration. How could she be so happy about this? Why wasn’t she tired of it? How did she stay so happy about a chore that seemed never-ending?

We asked her just that.

“Well.” Nannie began. “Sometimes you need to look at how far you’ve come, not how far you have to go.”

Oh. And with that she effortlessly picked up two full buckets and headed back to the house, happily humming all the while.

I wrapped up the story for my friend by saying that while Jan and I did continue to pray for an early frost, we put Nannie’s advice to use for the duration of the season. Our muscles stayed sore and our backs still cramped, but admittedly the burden seemed lighter by looking at how far we’d come and not how far we had yet to go. I thought my friend might apply that notion to his packing and school work, or to any effort really.

He didn’t get it.

He politely thanked me for yet another Nannie-ism and grumbled that he had to rush home to the hassle of more packing and to finish a paper for his graduate class. I assumed that was the last I’d see of him for a while knowing his workload. However, I happened to pass him on the street just a week or so later. I prepared to hear the negative update on the packing and schoolwork, instead he was all smiles.

I didn’t get it.

He casually mentioned the packing he had left to do and although he’d finished the paper for school, he now had one more to complete. Still he continued to smile. I couldn’t help but ask about his new attitude.

“You still have plenty going on but it’s not getting you down as much?” I asked.

I was then afraid I’d given him a reason to sink back into the negativity of all he had yet to finish. I tried to clarify by saying I understood how stressful it was to have multiple things to accomplish and how understandable it was to feel bogged down at times. Knowing he had so much to get done I was happy to see he wasn’t overwhelmed by all he had left to do, which showed in his attitude.

“Well.” he grinned. “Sometimes you need to look at how far you’ve come, not how far you have to go.”

He got it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Filed under Family, garden, grandmother

Just Some Vanilla

I’m no fan of snow, but as my eyes roll in disgust at weather forecasts I concede there were times when snowfalls thrilled me. Not due to missing school, sleigh riding, or building snowmen, but because Vicki and I would go to the store for Nannie.

At an unknown point in our youth, after one snowstorm or another, my sister Vicki and I decided we must plod across the field through snow, no matter the depth, to see if our grandmother needed anything from the store. Nannie lived in a huge old farmhouse, had always cooked for many, and could have at any point in time prepared a meal for forty out of what she had in her cabinets and refrigerator. Not even touching what was stored in her cellar.

Still… Vicki and I were sure Nannie needed something and we’d save the day by trudging through snow to ask, trekking through snow to the store, then slogging back through snow with the precious items we knew she needed badly but was unable to get out and get. Proud of our impending usefulness, we stomped snow from our boots and headed inside for what was sure to be a massive grocery list from Nannie. How else could she make it to the spring thaw if not for our efforts?  It was important to her that we helped, we were sure. We waited for her to list all of the things she needed desperately from the store.

“Well,” Nannie began as she watched snow pile against the window, “y’all could get me some vanilla.”

She did a lot of baking, we knew, but no milk? No bread? Coffee even? A side of beef? Anything? Just vanilla? Still, if it was important to Nannie, it was important to us and this vanilla was apparently very necessary. How fortuitous that we were there! Off to the store in the foul weather, vanilla purchased, and back to Nannie’s. We returned cold, soaked, red-cheeked, and tired… but mission accomplished. We had value.

That pattern repeated for a few years after every snowfall of every winter. If there were two heavy snows in a winter, Nannie somehow needed two bottles of vanilla. Our timing was uncanny. How relevant we were. It was important for Nannie to have that vanilla and without us her hopes would have been dashed. We felt an amazing sense of accomplishment and pride after helping. We were just kids, but we mattered!

Years later as adults, actually during the heat of summer, Vicki and I sat talking with Nannie on her back porch. Somehow conversation worked around to those long ago winters. I laughed and asked her why she needed so much vanilla. She thought for a minute about what I’d just said, then grinned.

“I didn’t need vanilla, but it was important to y’all to help, so that’s what I asked for.” Nannie said.

She followed up by saying she didn’t remember exactly but there were times she probably could have used something else but she’d never have asked us to haul groceries in the snow. She only “needed” vanilla because she knew it mattered to us to be of help – and it was easy for us to carry!

Some years after that conversation, with Nannie gone and her house being emptied, I stood in her kitchen and absent mindedly opened a cabinet. Pushed into one corner were several bottles of vanilla, some still in their original tiny cardboard boxes. I didn’t know if any of those might have been purchased in a snowstorm of the past, but I slipped one into my pocket just the same.

I still have that reminder.

By trying to do something we thought important to her, Nannie allowed us to feel that we were important.

I often sent my kids for vanilla when they were little. Not literally, but when I recognized in their faces that need to please by doing right, to feel important, to matter, I made sure I needed vanilla and I made sure they knew I couldn’t have gotten it without them.

Every kid should be sent to get vanilla, and often.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Filed under Family, grandmother, lesson