Sunday morning, seven hours after arriving home from a late-night hang-out with my two best friends, I was awakened by Daddy’s bustling around the house and the low burble and beeping of the weather radio. I closed my eyes tightly and hoped that the weather report would spare me of Sunday work – especially on the day of my graduation from high school.
I was not surprised, however, when Mommy’s footsteps softly reverberated toward my bedroom and, moments later, my fate was pronounced. “Sweet potatoes need planting before the rains,” she explained, and I mumbled a reply before tossing up the covers to get dressed.
After my usual morning routine of giving feed and water to fourteen high-energy chickens, followed by doing the same to the ever-maturing group of peeping pullets in their shed, I pulled on my sombrero to slip my way down the gravel path to the Bottom Field.
There, Koko sped toward me, tail wagging in exhilaration. When I looked up from scratching her belly, I saw Val and Brian – two of our farm apprentices for this season – and Mommy digging with shovels in the kale section up ahead.
We had transplanted green, red and Italian kale there a few weeks before, but the continuous rains ever since had left the soil so soggy and saturated at one end that the plants, starved of oxygen to their new roots, had died or had been stunted. Daddy said it was the first time he had seen plants grow smaller after transplanting rather than larger.
The wetter side had been massacred, leaving no option but a till-in and another planting from scratch, but the other three-fourths had been sprinkled with destruction. Daddy was walking up and down the rows, pushing in stakes next to plants he deemed too weak to survive.
I grabbed a shovel and following specific instructions, found a stake and dug a hole there. Then I found a healthy-looking kale from the extras planted in the middle of two rows in a bed of the same kind, and dug it up, making sure not to slice through the roots. The difficult part was making sure dirt stayed around the root when transplanting so that the connections between the roots and the soil would stay intact and make it easier for the plant to adjust to its new environment. Too often the dirt seemed unable to resist crumbling off during the move.
After laying the kale in, I snatched up clumps of dirt and crushed them in my palm, repeating until the gaping hole was full to the brim. My favorite part then followed – I got up on my feet to walk in a circle around the plant, firming it into the ground. The indent would also help to collect rain water.
As the sun followed its daily trail up, the air increased its temperature and humidity. I was glad when my brother Asa arrived after doing cattle chores (a favor for Grandpa while he and Grandma visit Uncle Fred and Aunt Odette’s newborn girl, Chenoa, in Oregon) – one more helping hand made all the difference.
But still, the line of stakes seemed never ending, and I was quickly succumbing to exhaustion and hunger. The newly transplanted kale gradually wilted in the penetrating sun, so Daddy sent Brian up to the well to fill buckets with water. My energy from eating only a banana for breakfast diminished with every press of my foot on the shovel. I began to wonder if we would be done in time for my graduation ceremony.
Past noon, we had moved from green to red to Italian kale and things were finally wrapping up. Brian stayed to finish splashing the plants with much-needed water, but the rest of us followed Daddy to the middle of the Bottom Field, where five long tilled beds were waiting to be filled with sweet potato plants.
Daddy demonstrated how to grab the top of the plant with one hand and the root with the other, and hold it sideways to slip into the soil at an angle, the root farthest south. Then he used his knuckles to pound down the long root and in around the plant. “One foot in between plants,” he finished, and we were off.
Planting sweet potatoes was a quick and easy task – a huge relief from the kale transplanting. Not only does Daddy’s method cut down on time, but since sweet potatoes take up so much space with their vines, they are planted only in the middle of the bed, meaning only one row, compared to the usual three, per bed.
Those long rows that looked so un-compromising before were being finished in record time. We were almost done when I realized that I only had an hour before I needed to leave the house for the ceremony—and I was filthy and time was ticking. The wind was picking up speed now, and as I speed-walked up the steep hill to the house, I felt the first drops of rain fall from the black, rumbling storm clouds.
I showered at what I thought was a fast and furious pace, which was quickly disproved by Asa’s pounding on the bathroom door: “We all need to shower, too!” Then I slipped on my graduation dress, covered it with the white gown and messed with my hair a bit before running into the kitchen to eat another banana.
The kitchen windows revealed how dark the sky had turned and wind whistled through the house. At the same time I hoped for rain, to give those sweet potatoes and kale a drink of life, I desired a rain-less afternoon so that the graduation could be held outside.
Minutes later, my family had undergone a magical transformation from dirt-covered button-down shirts and muddy jeans to dress shirts and pants. We piled into the car just as hail began to sail down, followed by a dumping of rain.
By the time we arrived at the high school, the rain had trickled down to a few drops. I ran in, a couple minutes late, to meet my friends for before-graduation pictures and I’m-never-going-to-see-you-again hugs, knowing that thanks to the unpredictable Illinois weather, I had been graced with an unforgettable graduation morning.