For Family and Potato Plants

Reggae beats played from my phone at exactly 3:50 PM and shook me out of a dream for the second time Wednesday. The hour-long nap had failed to cure me of my fatigue, which I blamed on the long work hours from early morning until mid-afternoon, during which time I had used my hand-hoe to clear out weeds so that the baby fennels could breathe and grow, and then mulched the potatoes. Lying on my bed staring half asleep at the off button on the alarm screen of my cell phone, I was tempted to hit it so that I could conk out again into a dream world where I would be safe from the hot sun and strenuous work.

Yet half an hour later, I was back in the Bottom Field, this time armed with a long scuffle hoe, peering closely at Daddy as he showed Brian – one of our many apprentices this farm season – and me how to thin the squat summer squash seedlings. He said to leave one foot of space between each plant – slashing through extra baby squash plants and weeds in between. Then he hoed around the plant so that about six inches to each side of the plant was weed-free. The demonstration looked deceptively quick and easy – as Daddy expertly and gracefully maneuvered the blade of the hoe so that it cut out everything but the healthy squash seedling. The hoe made a whooshing, banging sound as it rapidly slit the soil, and as Daddy moved back and forth, putting his back into the motion. For a second, Brian and I were both taken aback by the magical 10-second transformation of a weedy row of summer squash into glistening plants spaced evenly apart.  

Then Brian laughed, breaking the spell of amazed silence, and took over the row of squash while I trailed Daddy to hoe one of the cucumber rows.

As I desperately banged away at the ground, bent over and already sweating, trying to copy Daddy’s poise and speed, I remembered why I despised hoeing so much. Without Daddy’s gifted hoeing technique, I always seemed to murder the very plant I was trying to save. I felt as if I were using the hoe wrong, as well, and I tried to be stronger when hitting the ground so that the blade would easily cut through the topsoil, loosening the weeds.
 
As I furiously slashed around those cukes, I was reminded of another talented hoe-er – my older brother Asa. Hoeing looked like a piece of cake when Asa did it – by the end he looked like he had taken a leisurely walk while I always seemed to look and feel like I had just run a full marathon.
 
Asa was not down hoeing with us, though – he had left in the Honda Civic when the sun was high in the sky Saturday, to take the day-long drive down to Alabama, where he is working in a lab for the summer. The Friday Harvest before he left, I remembered that I harvested some early snow peas from the greenhouses and almost burst into tears while presenting one lonely pea to Asa because I realized he would not be here for the summer – for the first time in his life – to gobble down on those peas as we harvested, like he always did.
 
Thankfully, Daddy interrupted this depressing memory by calling from his truck, saying that when we were finished with the rows of cukes and summer squash, to meet him by the potato patch in order to mulch again. I was gaining speed now with my semi-magical hoe, and I pushed and pulled repeatedly with powerful strokes until Val, Peter, Brian and I had all met up.
 
I stretched my aching back as I put away my hoe and walked over to the patch of potatoes. We had already mulched about a quarter of the rows during the late morning. I gulped cold water from the jug that Daddy had filled for me up at the barn while he loaded the hay, and tried not to think of the fact that I forgotten my mask  again.
 
I took a deep breath as I surveyed the extensive rows and willed myself to go on. Then I lifted up a heavy gold-colored bale of hay by the two orange strings and carried it, stumbling, down the long row to where I would start.  I used my knife from my back pocket to slice through the strings so that the bale came apart into about ten sections. Next I spread out each section across the row. One bale usually went about ten to fifteen feet. Once this set-up was finished, I sat in between two potato rows, grabbed a section, tore it apart, fluffed up the hay in my hands, and stuck big bunches of it right up against the plants on my left, and in between the plants on my right, and then spread even more hay in between the rows. Daddy advised us to be rough when pushing up hay around the potatoes plants, since they could take the violent handling, and the mulch would be thick enough to smother out any pesky weeds. Mustard – another one of our farm hands – discovered some potato bugs on the plants and went on a killing spree. Those red gooey bugs that morphed into beetles were the number one enemy of our precious potato plants.
 
Even though I tried not to breathe in the dust of the hay, as I fluffed and grabbed bunches in my hands, I felt as if I were eating it – which caused me to cough from time to time. Dust was in my hair, stuck to my white, sweat-drenched long-sleeved shirt, and dumped upon my jeans. The heat of the sun, combined with the aerobic exercise, caused sweat to pour down more than ever before, and when I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, I could feel the grit of the mulch slip off. My eyes hurt from dust particle invasions and my throat was parched and mulch-filled by the time we neared the end of the rows and six o’clock rolled around.  
 
We all froze mid-fluff when Daddy announced our plan for Thursday. Because we have not been able to get much planting done due to the incessant rains, and it looked like the ground might finally be dry enough to till by Friday, he said, the usual Market Harvest would be moved up to Thursday. “Then if it is dry enough on Friday we will have all day to plant,” he added.
 
Harvest means we have to wake up and be down in the field at the crack of dawn, which these days occurs a little before 5 a.m.
 
Worst case scenario, we may find ourselves planting Saturday after the Market or on Sunday, or, most awfully, not at all this week.On that note, we finished another long and back-destroying work day.

As soon as I got home, I peeled off my sweat- and-mulch-covered clothes and rewarded myself with a shower. When I came out of the bathroom, spot-clean and refreshed, Kazami greeted me with “Tadaima (I’m home)!” I smiled in pure joy and replied, “Okaeri (Welcome home)!” and was infinitely grateful for my two sweet brothers – when one went away, I was granted the return of another.
 
I looked down at the hoeing blister forming on the bottom of my thumb, the bruise on my knuckle, and the hay-caused rash on my arms. Then I looked up at Kazami and grinned again, knowing that for this and the potato plants, it was all worth it.

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