Lise and dad

Gardening with dad.

“Excuse me, do you have jumper cables?” said a young woman as she approached me at the gas station.

Turning, I saw her car, hood propped open, in the bay next to my car. “I’m sorry, I don’t,” I replied, acknowledging my inadequacies, adding, “I don’t know how to use them.”

Smiling at the irony, the young woman said, “Me neither.”

I’ve addressed my lack of skills with a AAA membership, but managing simple car repairs used to be a common enough skill. I remember my dad carrying jumper cables and a few tools in the trunk of his car. It’s a testament to the improvement of our cars — not that long ago they routinely broke down.

While my dad kept our cars rolling, my mom kept a steady stream of food flowing through her kitchen and across our table. A small garden in the corner of our yard produced a bounty in summer — come fall we all pitched in to harvest and preserve piles of cucumbers, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and beans. I grumbled about the chores forced on me as kids are prone to do. Closing my eyes, still seeing that bright red strawberry jam, I ache for one more taste. I’m glad my parents pressed me into service as indelible memories were made to be treasured.

Decades have passed, and my ever-capable father is now slipping away from us as he walks into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease. He doesn’t always remember my name but he knows we worked side by side in his garden.

“You were the best strawberry picker,” he’ll say. He’s right; this is a clear memory to savor. My nimble fingers and flexible frame allowed me to reach deeply into the dense beds, retrieving red gems otherwise missed.

My dad still gardens. A few years ago, my folks moved into an assisted-living community; they have raised beds out back, beyond the staff parking lot. My dad is one of a handful of residents who keeps that little patch going.

We’ve been talking about the newly arrived seed catalogs and what he wants to plant. In the spring I will help him set the irrigation drips, then later we will work together putting up netting to keep the birds away and, after the frosts come, I’ll help pull withered plants to deliver them to the compost pile. During our weekly chats my dad will report the state of the harvest and, of course, moan about the weather in that way that gardeners do.

My dad couldn’t work on my car now, as it’s more a computer with wheels than a maintainable machine. But gardening persists in his hands and in the places in his mind that disease hasn’t yet erased. He might forget my name, but he remembers that we worked side by side harvesting strawberries.

So, this season, like all the ones before, I’ll make my choices, order my seeds and sow them to start my garden. Not so much for the cucumbers, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and beans but for the future memories I hope I will be able to hold onto.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email

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