I curse summer as it comes to an end. I don’t like the cold, I don’t like bundling up and I certainly don’t like being outdoors in anything less than double-digit temperatures.
But something helps ease my transition from the sun-filled summer months to the cooler in-between ones of fall. The memory of my grandpa Archie.
Watching my grandfather lovingly till the urban vegetable garden in his backyard escape made me so proud to have him as my grandpa. It was here that my love for local food, my appreciation for sustainability and my realization of the impact we have on nature – and that nature has on us – was born.
And now, some 20 years later, I realize how lucky I am to have had the chance to learn such skills and understanding from him.
I grew up in Toronto, but several times a year my parents would load up the family station wagon, pack us three kids into it and head east to their hometown of Montreal for visits with the family.
Though the timing of our trips would change with the years, we always managed to make it to La Belle Province each fall – just in time for the near-final harvesting of crops and seasonal cleanup.
It was in my grandfather’s garden where endless memories were made and invaluable lessons learned. Where the bond between grandfather and granddaughter, child and nature, were cemented.
And now, when the cool fall air blows with the undertones of summer leaving, I’m transported to that place. The crisp smell of the air coupled with the sparkle of sunlight through the trees carries me back to standing with a shovel in hand, catching sweet whiffs of my grandfather’s burning tobacco pipe.
My grandparents’ backyard included a sizable plot carved out for vegetable growing. The rest of the yard was filled by grass and an apple tree, leaving much room for young kids to burn energy.
While my younger brother and I would fill our self-delegated roles of pulling weeds and hunting for (and playing with) earthworms, my grandfather would be hard at work pruning tomato suckers, staking beans and planting a new harvest of fall-hardy crops. I would watch him in awe as he worked so comfortably and attuned to the rhythms of it all.
After Grade 6, my grandfather had traded in his school career for a blue-collar job to earn money to help his family. Though his schooling was cut short, the world became his classroom.
He worked with his hands from his early days in a machine shop, serving as a mechanic for the air force during the Second World War and becoming Mr. Fix It in his own home. He proudly worked as an oil salesman for a few decades before retiring.
From him, I learned what allegiance and endurance meant before I fully understood these words. He always persevered, complaint-free, with a smile on his face and a good sense of humour.
As a child, watching our shared successes growing in his garden made me burst with pride. Overturning leaves to uncover camouflaged cucumbers and pushing a lawnmower three times the size of my six-year-old self blossomed into a lifelong love of gardening. Now with a green space of my own to tend, each time I dig through the dark soil, I hear his laugh and see his smile.
It’s impossible to know, but I often wonder if I would have developed a green thumb if not for those cool September and October days spent in his yard.
Though my grandfather died in 2005, and it’s been even longer since I’ve relished the changing seasons in his garden, certain things will never leave me. The taste and smell of a homegrown tomato – incomparable to one doused with chemicals and shipped from many borders south. Or the joy of loading up buckets of freshly plucked cucumbers, anticipating the delicious crunch of soon-to-be-pickles.
His innate understanding of nature and his ability to make a piece of land flourish into a year’s worth of harvest, from the pickles to the jams to the applesauce, is instilled in me. I have unconsciously embraced this habit, snipping and drying herbs to use for teas and seasonings until the earth warms enough for the cycle to reignite next season.
If not for these experiences as a young girl, come Labour Day I would probably stop gardening like clockwork. Just pack it all in until Victoria Day. Maybe only venture outside when the dog scratches urgently at the door.
But I am reminded that although it’s no longer swimming weather, there is still much to be gained from being outside, from appreciating the last few breaths of summertime before the garden is blanketed by winter’s chill.
What you learn when you’re young sticks with you. And I’m grateful that as summer comes to a close, I can still walk out into a flourishing garden and appreciate the changing season in the way I imagine my grandfather did.
Michelle Singerman lives in Toronto.
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