I wrote the following for my church’s weekly newletter. You can find the original here.
Train up a Cucumber
“They are like children!” said one of the garden ladies. “They will climb up, but you have to give them a little help and show them where to go.” She gently lifted a cucumber vine and twined it through the netting so it would climb.
My children have grown a bit this summer — more than a bit, perhaps, to judge by shortening dress hems and tightening shoes. But they have also grown in understanding.
This summer, they lost their grandfather after two years of watching him fight cancer. It is their first death, and they have taken it hard. As my older daughter said the week after the funeral, “I don’t want anyone who loves me to die!”
I sympathized and told her I felt the same way, but there was nothing we could do about it. One of the hardest things about losing my father has been losing some of my children’s confidence that I can make anything and everything better for them, if only I want to and am willing to try.
I could do nothing to save their Granddaddy, even though I really, really wanted to. So my kids learned the sad lesson that parents are fallible and that sometimes death wins.
But the SPR garden also has been a pastime for them this summer, in the weeks we have been home and able to get to church on a Sunday. It has been a reassuring counterpoint to the fact of death, and that is the very concrete, undeniable fact of life.
When my children ask me questions about God, I tend to tell them some version
of this: “God is a very special mother who takes care of the whole world. God makes things be alive. She makes things grow.”
(As a result of this teaching, when my younger girl saw a landscaper doing some work recently, she said, “look, that man is helping God! He’s taking care of the world.”)
When things in a garden die, my children know that nature turns them into dirt again, like the compost in the buckets on our own patio garden at home. New things can grow from that next season.
A garden at church is the perfect object lesson for them to connect the sacred and mundane facts of life — that God makes life, makes things grow, turns death and decay into something new and beautiful and perhaps even delicious, like a cherry tomato picked right off the vine, warm from the sun.
But this comes at a cost — a cost of labor and time and sometimes the frustration of fending off rapacious beetles that would chew down your vine before it can blossom.
And some people, work as hard as they will, never can get that vine blossoming.
This summer, along with the sad fact of death, my kids also have begun to learn the sad fact that life is not fair. Some people have more than they need, while some don’t have enough. The good news is that those who have enough can share and even the score just a little bit, almost every day.
When we go to the grocery store each week, we have a list of “Things We Need” and a list of “Things We Want.” My older daughter carefully crosses things off our “need” list and adds the prices as we shop. We have a budget every week and we are never able to get everything on our “want” list. But “sharing food” for the basket at the church altar is on the “need” list.
We always have enough to add a can of beans or a package of cereal for someone who might be hungry, even if it means we can’t get a candy bar for ourselves. It’s a lesson the children take with all the faith in the world that what I’ve told them — sharing is part of being who we are — is a simple truth. They never quibble about this.
Recently, my older daughter badly wanted to eat a fresh pepper harvested from the SPR garden. I told her no. She kept begging and cajoling and I kept saying no until the thought struck me to simply explain. “The garden vegetables are sharing food,” I told her. “Oh!” She put down the pepper gently. She has never asked me to eat food from the garden again.
But she loves the garden nonetheless for that. She is as happy as she can be, helping pick ripe veggies, pulling weeds, plucking beetles off the plants and asking the expert gardeners a thousand questions.
The morning after my father died, my younger daughter asked, “will God make Granddaddy again?” I explained that Granddaddy was one-of-a-kind and that God is just too creative to ever make the same thing twice.
But although it may sound odd at first, I’ve told the girls that Granddaddy is a little bit like the compost. For one thing, he donated his body to cancer research. So there is an obvious way in which his physical being has been used to renew life among those of us who are still here slogging along on the Earth. But in the end, my father’s body was just a body, and it has returned to dust, as every one of ours will someday.
And yet, like the compost that gives so much vitality to a tomato plant, my father’s love for his children and grandchildren will become — has already become — a part of who they are.
My children are stronger, happier, more loving people for having known his love for them. The spirit of sharing that he demonstrated even after death, he passed down to me to pass on to my own children. If all goes well, someday they will pass it to theirs.
And SPR — both in the garden and elsewhere — is a place to nurture those seeds of generosity and kindness, of sharing and enjoying people from all over the world (or from just across the neighborhood at KAM Isaiah Israel!). People come and go — even the ones who love us.
But in the end, it’s that very love that really wins.