Two Acres of Forgiveness
- Wednesday, June 10, 2009
If anyone asked me, "What was your childhood like?" I responded the same way. "I was never a child." My past felt like a mass of barbed wire in my chest. Even after Daddy died, it haunted me.
As a boy, I didn't worry much Monday through Wednesday, but every Thursday morning when the roosters crowed I squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to keep the day away. Thursday nights he'd get a head start on his weekend drinking. Daddy never talked about his alcoholism. Nobody did.
The only thing Daddy loved as much as beer was his garden. Daily, my brothers and sisters and I worked in his garden. He inspected with a vengeance. "You missed a week. Can't you do anything right?" I'd keep my head down, not meeting his coal-black eyes, and watch him expertly snatch it. "When will you learn, boy?" he'd holler over my shoulder, slurring his words and stumble away. I'd stay crouched low over the plump tomatoes, peppers, and corn, and whisper, "I hate him. I hate this garden. I hate his dirt." I vowed never to have a garden—never grow anything but grass.
Daddy's words of condemnation sunk deep inside me. I began to believe a lie—that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be good enough.
Joking around with him meant trouble, the same way a vicious dog wags his tail and then growls and bites. One day when I was ten, I tried to be funny but said something he didn't like. Daddy jerked off his belt and swung it at me like a lasso. The buckle hit the side of my head. Hot pointed pain seared my left ear. I cowered by my bed and tried to hide. Blood oozed from my ear and covered my hand. I washed up and we never discussed it.
Later, I discovered he'd perforated my eardrum. I have permanent hearing damage and chronic ear infections. Sixty-five years later, on windy days my ear aches.
After that beating, I devised a new strategy. I decided to keep quiet around him, so maybe he wouldn't hurt me anymore. Daddy never hit me again, but his sharp words cut much deeper.
The first week of my fifteenth summer I woke to the buzz of cicadas and Daddy's booming voice. "You kids got plenty of work to do. I want it done right." He left to buy beer. I trudged toward the garden in the early morning steam and decided no more. Not one more day in that garden. I walked toward the bus station to skip town. Pretty soon, I heard his truck rumbling behind me.
"Get in, boy."
My heart raced and for a second, I couldn't find my voice. Somehow, I got the words out. "You can kill me, but I'm not working your garden anymore." I stared ahead at the horizon.
He rolled up his window and left me. No money. No nothing. And I knew that was it—he wouldn't come back for me. The odds of making it alone were next to nothing so I walked home.
That afternoon, I dropped down beside my brothers and sisters and jerked okra hard and fast. With each piece I plopped in my beige cloth sack, the prickly okra seems to mock me.
He's right. You're worthless. Incompetent.
With sweat dripping in my eyes, I swore under my breath to one day break free. I knew if I could get away from him and his garden, I'd have peace.
I convinced myself that getting an education would prove my worth so I double mastered in theology and education. Then I became a pastor. A writer. A teacher. A speaker. But that feeling of never measuring up dogged at me. None of my accomplishments lifted the heaviness in my heart or impressed my father very much.
At age 43, I flew 2,000 miles to see him. I had to know the truth before he died. There he sat in the den. His bear paw hands gripped the sides of his rocking chair. I eased on the sofa across from him.
"Can I talk to you?" My heart pounded as though it were a childhood Thursday morning.
"I've only wanted one thing from you," I said. He stared out the window at the parched September day. I moved to kneel in front of him. "Daddy, do you love me?"
"Hmmmmm, well." At 84-years-old, he stood up, still tall and proud. He left me and went to his bedroom. Those were his last words to me. Six months later he died. I'd hoped his death would set me free. But a lifetime of pain remained. Feeling inadequate had been my shadow for so long that I didn't believe healing was possible.
Ten years after Daddy's death, an idea began to form—a crazy plan to return to gardening. His words bounced through me as I jogged through my neighborhood before dawn.
Any numbskull can grow grass.
That was it. I decided no more grass on our two-acre lot. I began to methodically kill every blade of Bermuda grass. My suburban yard renovation rarely left my thoughts. As I jogged, I'd spot piles of clippings. "Do you mind if I have those old hydrangeas?" "Can I have a cutting from that Japanese maple?" Twenty trees grew from that one weak-looking sapling. "If you're throwing out those Ajuga plants, may I have them?" Even Sea Daisies from Florida grew for me. Over time, I filled all the bare spots with flowers and trees.
Destroying the two acres of grass surrounding our house took five years. Each afternoon from 4 to 6, I worked. By the third year, I gave away the lawn mower. As I worked, Daddy's instructions returned to me.
Give space for roots. Never miss a watering day. Weeds will choke anything if you give 'em the chance. Gardening is hard work, boy.
One September day, I slipped on a pair of gardening gloves, a gift from a friend. They didn't feel natural. I ripped them off and tossed them aside. Grabbing the dirt and sifting it through my fingers, I inhaled the long-ago smell. Memories tiptoed back. The days in the sun. Gathering produce. Working beside my brothers and sisters.
Turning my hands over, I examined them. In an unexpected instant, I saw my father's hands. Daddy made nails for a living. He kept his fingernails filed to the quick and his huge hands were always filthy. I brushed my fingers off on my jeans and traced my calluses. My calluses matched my father's. I scanned my backyard at the butterfly bushes, old-fashioned begonia, Autumn Joy, black-eyed Susan, and sweet William. Each one thriving. Full of blooms. He'd taught me to work hard and to grow things.
On my knees that Indian summer afternoon, I considered for the first time my father's struggles, his pain, and his demons. His father, brothers, and his grandfather were alcoholics. Who knows what each of them faced as little boys? I rose to my feet as a new truth dawned on me. You can't give away what you don't have. Maybe Daddy didn't have any extra love stored up to share.
As the sun sets these days, I'm surrounded by trees and flowers as though I'm in the Garden of Eden. The Gardener walks alongside me. The condemning orders from my father have grown quieter. Instead, I sense a steady hand that pats my shoulder. Perfect love as sweet as my lavender hyacinths blooms inside me. I hear my Father's words, "You're doing a fine job, son. I love you."
Finally, oh finally, I believe him.
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