Uncovering Yesterday

Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark

Built in 1929, the little two-story farmhouse had its charms. But it was the park-like property on which it sat that compelled us to sign the BUYER line, nearly two acres punctuated in front by century-old walnut, oak and hickory trees, a trio of towering evergreens and a fragrant overgrown lilac bush.

Uncovering Yesterday - TrowelDense and thorny, wild raspberry ran rampant over the wrought-iron fencing outlining the large lot’s perimeter, wrapping in part around a raised island with box elder, ferns and a double-trunk white birch.

And then off to the side, out further back — past the detached garage and an old wooden wishing well made by the fruit grower who had lived here first — a hand-painted rock (TOMATOES) marked the garden, long buried in the weeds.

It also sparked my inner gardener.

I wanted to diffuse this explosion of prickly wild berry vines, thick batches of crab grass, thatches of tall, scratchy thistle, burdock and dandelion, clean slate this patch of property — make that garden bigger and better than it’d ever been before.

There was just the little hiccup of my never having planted anything more than a few pumpkins and sunflowers, and that some dozen years back when the kids were small. (None of the squashes grew big enough for faces, but two of the eight sunflowers had grown higher than my 4-year-old’s head.)

Every inherent sense of excitement that putting a seed or sturdy starter plant into the ground brought was doubled by what was dug out alongside of it.

Throughout that first winter in our “new” 82-year-old house, I dug into beginner gardening books and all the magazines I could find. I sat rooted to “how-to” sites for hours and spun racks of seeds in big-box stores, enthralled by the stacks of packets I brought home. I bought three pairs of different-colored nitrile gloves and one pair of too-big but farm-hip rubber boots, four rolls of chicken-wire fencing and two balls of twine, lined up six tomato cages and a dozen wooden stakes, two shovels, one hand trowel, a couple pails and three kinds of rakes.

The first day in May risk of frost was safely past, I marched out with purpose and trail mix falling out of my pants, ready to get growing.

But I discovered in a garden this age, spring is also prime time to uncover what has already been sown.

PIECES OF THE PAST brightened the dirt, it seemed, at almost every turn of it, the result of homeowners here over the earlier of eight-plus decades throwing their trash out back.

Uncovering Yesterday - BottlesChurned up in waves by my better half’s rototiller or spade or loosened from deeper soil by my hand trowel, hoe or rake, smooth-edged slivers and shards of glass (which last forever) surfaced in all kinds of sizes, textures and colors — pieces of amber beer bottles; still-brilliant emerald 7-Up chips; ridged aqua Coke breaks, cosmetic milk glass and cobalt blue apothecary bits, among countless wafers of thin glass and thicker chunks of clear jars, scuffed and scratched and sometimes even embossed with swirls or numbers or partial words (…EASURE).

Every inherent sense of excitement that putting a seed or sturdy starter plant into the ground brought was doubled by what was dug out alongside of it.

Treasures found including a pretty lavender-hued glass knob, an old multi-colored marble, the intricately carved cream head of a vintage clay tobacco pipe, a cracker-sized piece of checkerboard-pattern glass from the Depression era and the metal patent tag from a 1920s Bosch Ambolone Reproducer Radio Speaker were brushed off as they were found and gingerly set inside a big plastic purple pot positioned on the big stump by our woodpile — for safety as well as mementoes.

My two teenage daughters readily began collecting these intriguing glass fragments — as well as an array of broken pottery, porcelain, china and rust-caked farm tools, from a small spade and corroded links of chain to a barn bolt and tin cup — as they helped mix mulch, pull weeds and break up hard clumps of clay with rakes.

Uncovering Yesterday - Bottle“Keep an eye out for broken glass and other things,” I kept saying to my son, then 20, whose meticulous focus even past dusk was on ensuring that the 6-foot-by-8-foot square of soil he was digging for our first raised vegetable bed was uniform. “You’re looking, right?”

He kept shaking his head no, he hadn’t spotted anything yet.

But at the end of that first exhilarating, exhausting, so very satisfying day working together to bring the garden back, when we were banging the dirt off our shoes, shaking it out of our hair and scraping it off our Deet-coated arms, he reached into his shorts pocket and pulled out an embossed little perfume bottle in its entirety, half-filled with decades-old sands of time.

“Oh yeah,” he said, handing it over to me, his eyes bright. “I did find this.”

And there, in the light of the last citronella torch — marveling over this hardy 2-ounce survivor I’d later find was an Illini oval made by the Illinois Glass Co. in 1926 — I also found the garden became better just by us taking our place in its bigger picture.

Former Michigan BLUE editor, Lisa M. Jensen, is a freelance writer in Rockford who enjoys digging in her garden.

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