Green Thumb

It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m at the breakfast table reading the newspaper when my eyes veer from the print to catch the sunlight streaming in the window. Tommy, who is asleep upstairs, has raised the blinds to make room for seedlings he placed on the sill.

I leave my chair to read the tiny sticks stuck in the dirt. There are three Tomato Super Marzanos, two Habanero Hot Peppers, one Cayenne Long Slim Hot Pepper, one Super Chili Hot Pepper, two California Wonder Bell Peppers, and one Cucumber Pickling.

It was yesterday when my husband sped through the aisles of the garden center with me, and a green-uniformed salesman, following after. “Tomatoes,” I called out behind me. “This way,” the man said, and reversed our directions until we ended up in the proper row. And so it went with the rest of the plants now on the sill.

Tommy has had a green thumb as long as I’ve known him. When we first met in 1996, he was living on the second floor of a friend’s two-flat with a back yard and a garden. But because he worked a full-time job, he never had time to till that soil, plant, or reap.

When we married in January of 1998, outdoor gardening was out, so my new husband started with indoor plant maintenance.

“These need watering,” he said as he inspected my sorry potted plants. Moving along the  dieffenbachia, schefflera, palm, and lily, he dug fingers deep into the soil and shook his head. He went to the kitchen, filled a pitcher with water, and after dousing, asked for a rag to dust leaves. My plants perked up. I was grateful to have a custodian assume a role not in my DNA.

As soon as we moved into this house, with its big yard surrounded by fencing, Tommy surveyed his land and staked out plots for a vegetable garden. When Burpee catalogs arrived in the mail, I’d hand them over. He’d grab them as if they were letters from a long-lost relative.

Every day my husband would tend his garden. I’d watch as he inspected, watered, fertilized, and pampered. “Looking good!” I’d call out. He’d turn to my voice, wave a spade, and grin, “Not too long now,” he’d say.

I’m not sure who was sunnier in those scenes. Me, witnessing my husband revel in a simple hobby long awaited? Or Tommy, blooming into a proud landowner?

When his crop yielded vegetables to rival a farmstand’s, he’d place a half dozen ripe tomatoes and several hot peppers in a plastic bag. “These are for the boys,” he’d say, referring to his golfing buddies who savored his garden’s output.

He’d stop neighbors.  “I’ve got tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and potatoes,” he’d say, looking as proud as a 4-H winner. “Want some?”

But this year, our idyll was threatened. When the seed catalogs arrived in the mail, I handed them to Tommy. Instead of snatching them, he pointed to the coffee table. I dropped them there.

Later, when I saw him stuff them, unopened, in the straw basket on the side of the couch, I asked, “Too much work?”

“Yes” was the nod. I wondered: had the lapses in his brain that ended his speech, also turned his cherished pastime into something too complex. I didn’t press him further.

Then, something changed. It started with the cemetery. “Honey,” I said, “we have to get plants for my parents’ graves.” This was our annual Mother’s Day ritual. We’d buy a few cubes of Zinnia, pack a kit with a kneeling pad, spade, water bottle, and Wet-Naps, and head out for Waldheim.

At Home Depot, instead of stopping at the few posies for the graves, Tommy placed three hanging baskets and several flats of assorted flowers in his cart. “Front porch for the baskets?” I asked him. “Back deck railings?” He nodded, “yes.” My heart lifted.

The next day I saw him heading out the door. “Where are you going?” I asked. Then, I wrote, “Walk” “Bike” on a Post-it. I waited for him to circle an answer. He shook his head, “no” at each.

He took the pad and pencil and wrote “herb” under my two guesses. I knew what he meant. A landscape nursery was only a few blocks from our house.

“The garden center!” I said. “You’re going to the garden center? Vegetables?” He nodded, “yes.”

“I’ll go with you,” I said, grabbing my sunglasses.

Soon, the plants that line the sill will be embedded in backyard soil. My green-thumbed husband will water, tend, and reap vegetables for his buddies, our neighbors, and our table. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.  

Produce would be nice, too.