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Posted Jan 22 2009 6:29pm

Thomas Hart Benson

" Home. " The sound of it was strange but sweet to my ear. " You're going home. " After being with a hundred homeless kids, my two sisters and I were leaving the orphanage where we'd spent six years following my Mother's untimely death at age 40 .

I tried to imagine what home would be like. It was a new, unfamiliar word. I would have my own room, my own chair and my very own garden which I didn't have to share with anyone.

Down the long winding country road we came upon a log cabin on a steep hill surrounded by pine-filled woods and the green rolling hills of Alabama. I jumped out of the car and ran into the house, slamming the screen door behind me.

I was ten , old enough to take on chores around the farm that Daddy took care of. He gave me the vegetable garden to tend to. It was a serious job because it fed our family year round. My younger sister Linda tagged along behind me following my instructions to help. Daddy ploughed, added manure and planted seeds and I was shown how to use a hoe, weed, and water.

I was amazed to see how quickly rows of onions, cabbages, peas, beans, carrots, corn , okra , tomatoes, green peppers and turnips sprout from the earth . They grew rapidly in the warm Southern sun and before long ended up as a meal cooked by my older sister Wilma, who had become very good at preparing the bounty of the garden.

We didn't have a problem with critters like rabbits and raccoons eating the vegetables because they had a lot of natural enemies that ate them - fox, stray cats, dogs, people, etc.

As each vegetable was harvested, any excess that couldn't be eaten was canned under Wilma's supervision and put in the cellar for winter consumption. The cabbages were used for sauerkraut which was fermented in a large earthenware jar and then preserved.

I watched Daddy prepare ham, bacon and pork chops for winter in the smokehouse. He showed us how to make sausage, taking great care to season it liberally with sage and other spices.

Each morning at the crack of dawn I jumped out of bed and went to the garden, pulled out any weeds that dared to appear, checked for bugs, and picked the vegetables for that day's meal.

Daddy also planted a large field of sweet and Irish potatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe and peanuts.The potatoes and onions were stored in a bin over winter.

Linda and I went out in search of blackberries and muscadines ( wild grapes ) in the field. We'd usually get enough blackberries for Wilma to make a pie. I was not allowed in the Strawberry patch that Daddy made because I ate more than I picked. The strawberries and blackberries were used to mak jelly and jam and the apples we gathered were used for apple butter.

Growing up on a farm doesn't leave much time for play. We found joy in simple pleasures. Summer nights we gathered on the front porch and made homemade peach ice cream. I loved the sound of the whippoorwill as it broke the stillness with its song. On rare, rainy days we stayed inside and enjoyed reading a book or listening to the radio. We never owned a television.

We had an orchard of pear, pecan and apple trees that provided fruit and nuts. Except for the provisions of flour, cornmeal , sugar and lard which we purchased in large quantities on our monthly visit to the grocer, we were self-sufficient.

We had a milk cow , a horse, pigs, several barnyard cats, a collie-mix dog and lots of chickens that provided both meat and eggs . I learned to milk the cows and got so good at it that when the cats came sniffing around I would squirt milk into their mouths. From the fresh milk we made buttermilk and then churned it into butter.

For Sunday dinner, Wilma would fry up one of the home grown chickens and make homemade biscuits and gravy . There was usually fresh corn , beans and okra to go with it and one of her apple or blackberry pies.

I didn't realize until I was grown and left home that we were poor . I laugh when I hear the words of one of my favorite songs from the group Alabama " Somebody told us that Wall Street fell , but we were so poor we couldn't tell. " In truth we were living a very organic , healthy and happy life.

From my Father with the greenest of thumbs who could coax crops out of clay I learned the secrets of the soil and to observe the weather by the animals behavior. " It's going to be a cold winter this year, " he'd say and he was always right. It was the first time in my life that I saw snow and I thought it was magical.

Of all the summers I've spent in the garden my very first remains in my memory as one of the happiest and most innocent of times.

As Charles Dudley Warner so eloquently stated in his book MY SUMMER IN A GARDEN:
" Gardening is one of the most fascinating occupations in the world . The love of rural life, the habit of finding enjoyment in familiar things ---is worth a thousand fortunes of money. "
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