The garden in a brown paper bag


The only clue we needed was the brown paper bag. It was usually in the backyard, placed on the corner of the deck that surrounded the pool.

Three kids on a summer day, falling out of the car and racing to the back door. Mom usually trailing the group from the driveway… Dad occasionally, and both parents every so often.

“Meme and Pepe were here!” came the cries.

The scene played out multiple times each year. Not at all common, but frequently enough that the kids were never surprised to see the bag, and actually reached a point where any of us might be looking specifically for it.

Mom, getting the left behind items in her hands straightened out so she could find the key for the door, would reply the same way each time: “How do you know?”

As always, it was that brown paper bag.

One filled with tomatoes and cucumbers. And once we pointed it out, the reasoning was obvious. Meme and Pepe had indeed stopped at the house earlier.

My grandparents had a garden each year. I’m guessing they had other vegetables, but try as I might all I can recall are tomatoes and cucumbers.

They lived about a forty-minute drive away. Not bad. Not bad at all. But between school for the kids and full-time jobs for the adults, it was far enough. We’d see each other often, but not necessarily regularly, if you can follow the difference.

Funny things about those younger days… they were different.

For one thing, people went out for drives. Weekends. Nothing planned. A few hours in the car. Long drives. Get away and see something new. Perhaps—just perhaps—a restaurant or such would be picked, and then off you’d go. No real time for having to get there. No real route set in your mind. Just hop in the car and drive. And when—perhaps—a destination became involved, that might be the factor in deciding if you were headed north, south, east or west.

For another thing, technology didn’t contribute in any way. Long distance phone calls were more expensive than gas. (I know… sounds crazy… find someone over the age of fifty and ask them about it. In my childhood, if you dared pick up the phone and dial a “1” before following it up with ten more digits, you’d better have a darn good reason for doing so.) A GPS unit at that time was actually the pairing of a folding map from AAA and an Arrow Street Guide in the glove compartment. No cell phones. No texting.

For our little story today about my grandparents and a bag of vegetables, the idea of such considerations is simple enough… on their days off, people relaxed by heading off on a bit of a drive, and for a casual drive they normally didn’t call ahead to check and see if you were planning to be around.

The result? Although not at all a common event, it did happen that Meme and Pepe would arrive unannounced at the house. And, there were occasions when their arrival was timed to find nobody home.

I just got back from the front door of the neighbors’ house. Paul and Karen. We have a fun little battle going on. Terry and I are working with our first garden in years. We have been sharing the results with our friends and family. A few weeks ago, Terry fixed a basket of assorted items (tomatoes, peppers and such), and I dropped it off when I saw Paul out mowing the lawn. Perhaps two weeks later I was off again (this time the regular garden items along with an eggplant and some summer squash).

Karen responded to my visits and our gifts by returning our baskets to us… filled with plates of homemade cookies. She snuck over while Terry was out and I was mowing the lawn. I walked into the garage, saw some baskets I didn’t remember, and when I looked inside… cookies. Nicely played.

Today, I dropped off a few more vegetables and freshly baked zucchini bread. (Your move, Paul and Karen. (I kid. It’s not their move… and we’ll get to more about that in a second. But in a funny twist, Karen responded to news that she should check her front porch by saying that a family friend dropped off some fresh garlic they had grown, it was too much for her and Paul to use, and she’d be stopping by soon with some for us. So… yeah… the exchanges continue.))

What I want to get back to though is that bag of vegetables from my grandparents. And I want to lead it into the baskets shared with neighbors. Because for me, that’s been the most fulfilling part of the garden. The connection with others… family and friends and genuine expressions of kindness that work in both directions.

Yes, I absolutely love heading into the back yard in the morning, finding one or two vegetables that are ready to pick, and deciding what to make for lunch of dinner based on the discoveries. BLTs. Eggplant parmesan. Side dishes of butternut squash. Brilliant. Love it.

But when I come into the house with a few colanders filled with that day’s harvest, pass them off to Terry, and then she returns home from work that evening with stories of people bringing tomatoes and cucumbers from her office to the cafeteria to make their own fresh lunch… that’s just magical. Same with the days when she brings in loaves of zucchini bread.

And you know when it gets the most magical? On afternoons such as last week, when I stumbled across two plates of cookies in the baskets Karen returned to us. Or, more specifically, with that exchange that quietly offers appreciation between people.

Years and years ago, my grandparents would get in the car and head off for an afternoon. And, while trying to decide on where to go, it would have made plenty of sense to visit the grandchildren. That would have been reason enough for the drive. But on some summer days, with an abundance of tomatoes and cucumbers on hand, they provided themselves with a bit of extra reasoning. And that makes me smile.


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