When I was just out of college and teaching in a small town in Nebraska, I rented a refurbished farmhouse from the superintendent. His dad was Doc. Doc’s wife was Lillian. They became my surrogate Nebraska grandparents.
Doc used to be a dentist, and one day he presented me with a mood ring. Remember those? They changed color depending on your mood. The ring was slightly off-center and not perfectly round. It turns out that Doc made it from melted down silver fillings he had lying around in his dental office (a room in his farmhouse).
The farmhouse was on the edge of town, near the high school where I taught Spanish.
Lillian was a great cook, but her kitchen was filthy. The oilcloth tablecloth was covered with dust. The stick of butter in a plastic tub was covered in crumbs. Her hand towel hanging on the fridge handle was black with dirt.
I’ve never been a farmer, so that was new to me. I ate many a meal at that dirty table. My mother would’ve been appalled.
I rolled my cob of corn in that crumby butter, just like Doc did.
I wiped my hands only once on that filthy hand towel.
Doc and Lillian’s garden out their back door was half an acre. Part of it was Doc’s vegetables. Part of it was Lillian’s roses. The rows were neat and clean with no weeds. They spent more time keeping their garden tidy than their house.
Doc came over to my farmhouse that first spring with his rototiller. He turned over fresh black dirt so that I could grow a garden behind the barn where there was full sun. He showed me how to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips and something weird called kohlrabi. Later, I discovered that California people call it jicama. I had three kinds of lettuce, snap beans, and radishes, too.
After a hard day of teaching or working as a summer letter carrier for the U.S. post office, the garden was therapy.
I learned how to thin a row of tiny plants so the ones left behind could get bigger. I learned how to identify weeds and how to pull them from their roots (a life skill I still use).
After two years in that tiny town, I moved on to a bigger school in Council Bluffs, Iowa, at the age of 24. Lillian wrote letters to me for a long time after that. When the letters stopped, I knew something bad had happened.
Then I got an obituary notice from the superintendent. Doc had died. I think Lillian had to move in with one of her sons.
What a joyful marriage Doc and Lillian had, up to the end. Doc taught me how to be a gardener. Lillian showed me how not to keep house and that food conquers all.
I still have the lopsided mood ring. And the photograph that just appeared one day in my messy office.