Every year, he’d plant. And in the fall, we’d harvest.
One by one, like baby ducklings behind a mother, we’d fall in line behind the blue Ford tractor. Granddaddy would plow, his calloused hands gripping the steering wheel, and we’d pick up – Dad, Mom, and me. Eventually, Baylee joined us in the field.
“Make me a sign, Miss Pucket,” he said one year. “One to put by the road.” So together we painted a makeshift sign from a leftover piece of wood we found in the barn. “Sweet Potatoes for Sale,” in crooked black letters, hand-painted by two of a kind who happened to be born over six decades apart.
There were only six of us back then, but he’d plant enough sweet potatoes to feed every mouth in Taylor County. He acquired regulars, buyers that returned year after year — some for the sweet potatoes, others just for the company. The sign would disappear once the final bushel of sweet potatoes was sold. “Sold” being a loose term – mostly, he’d give them away to anyone who happened to stop by. “Run in and get me a sack, Miss Ash.” He’d give away his potatoes, but not the baskets.
“Why’s he gotta plant so many?” I’d ask Nini on dig days. I’d break for water every few minutes and search for relief in the kitchen, although without air-conditioning, the outdoors more often than not stayed cooler.
“Have you ever known Granddaddy to do ‘justa little’ of anything?” she’d reply as she slathered me in sunscreen that had expired 6 years prior. “Here, put on this cap.”
Once outside and out of sight from the kitchen window, I’d hang the cap on a limb of the fig tree. The sun was hot on my back and the damp coolness of the turned ground was the only relief for my bare feet. Mom and Dad worked diligently, while I looked for ways to stay hidden from view. The baskets we collected them in were old and would crack under the weight of the potatoes. Eventually, I’d get spotted and called back into the field.
It’d take us the better part of a day, but we’d gather until the last potato bushel was tossed into the bed of his old Dodge Ram pickup. It was my job to inch the pickup through the dusty field while Dad and Granddaddy would load the baskets in the bed. I felt important behind the wheel of that pickup.
A weekend or two after digging, he’d call you to the barn to show off the largest potato dug that year. “Course, it ain’t fit to eat,” he’d say as he’d turn it over in his hands and place it back in the basket with all the other misfits.
We’d have a side of sweet potatoes with every meal for the next 3 months. They were always placed directly in front of Granddaddy at the supper table and it was his job to pick out a potato for everyone eating supper.
“This is a good ‘un,” he’d say, after carefully feeling of them all and placing the chosen one onto my plate. Only my dad was trusted enough to choose his own.
Halfway through supper, Nini would lean over and whisper in my ear, “put some meat on your Granddaddy’s plate.” After selecting his sweet potato, he seemed to forget there were other things to eat besides a sweet potato.
We are and always have been a family that likes to eat sweet potatoes, because we honestly don’t have the option not to.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to Nini on the phone when I asked her about Granddaddy’s garden.
“He’s not plantin’ one this year,” she said. “He’s tired and his leg bothers him. He’s over there in the chair right now with it propped up.”
“Can’t he just plant a small garden? He don’t have to plant for the entire county like he usually does.”
“Have you ever known your Granddaddy to do ‘justa little’ of anything?” she says, and I can hear her smiling on the other end.
“No, I guess not.”
And so, with the first hint of fall in the air now, I’ve been thinking back lately…back to those days I spent in that dusty field, complaining about the dirt under my fingernails and diggin’ those sweet potatoes, and wishing more than anything I’d have the chance to dig them with my family again one day.