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The lettuce never grew | Pamdemonium
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The lettuce never grew

March 11, 2010

His nails were yellow-orange, cracked and too long. Burn holes dotted his pajamas and sweatshirts from the weeks before the nurses forced him to wear a fireproof bib. As the Camel Regulars turned to ash, the embers burned his lips and fingertips. The nurses finally insisted on filtered cigarettes.

My father looked like that when he died in 2006, but by then he did not have the strength to get out of his bed to enjoy the one pleasure he had left, his smokes. He had congestive heart failure and dementia. I forget what the official death certificate says, but my father died of alcoholism.

He tried to stop drinking and could not. He was in and out of treatment centers and halfway houses half a dozen times, sometimes stringing together a year or two of sobriety but eventually succumbing to a drug that AA aptly calls cunning, baffling and powerful.

Some years before he died, just before we had to put him in a nursing home, he started refusing food, drink and his medications. He drank himself into a near coma, though he still managed to steal the car keys my mother had hidden and go out for more vodka.

My dad died alone.

Growing up in an alcoholic household means fear, shame and chaos. At 15, after school, I found my father, a college graduate, engineer and supervisor of other engineers, passed out on the floor of the kitchen. At 13, I told my mother to leave him, that we would survive and I would take extra jobs. As he poured another huge brandy (before the switch to vodka) and staggered across the kitchen, I picked up a large kitchen knife, held it out and screamed that if he wanted to kill himself, why not get it over with. That was 37 years ago; I was 12.

Disorder becomes an enemy, for a child can’t control an intoxicated adult but can keep her room tidy. I learned the lesson well. I have lists and lists and lists. When I became a newspaper editor, after years as a reporter, I organized not only my day but also the ones belonging to my reporters. I even tried to organize my boss.

At home, I cook in large batches to freeze food. I want my husband to keep his cell phone, wallet and keys in the same place. I crave projects – sewing, crafts, recipes – that will succeed if directions are followed. Conflict and indecision make me crazy.

I get things done. I am efficient. But I fight to slow down, savor the moment and not plan ahead for the next one. It will be a life-long struggle.

A few years before Dad died, while we were living in New Orleans, my husband and I bought a weekend getaway in rural Mississippi that had seven acres, a pond and echoes of the pleasant parts of my childhood – camping, fishing, reading. It also had an overgrown, raised bed where the first owner grew vegetables.

I decided to rebuild it.

I ripped off the crumbling black plastic, extracted a decade of weeds and tree roots, added compost, manure and fertilizer.

Home in Minnesota for a high school reunion August 2004, I remembered my dad’s robust vegetable garden. He had sent me pictures once in the 1980s during some of the better years. Gardening, I thought, could give us a breezy, safe topic and bring us closer. On an evening ride back to the nursing home, I asked what vegetables did well. Beans, he said. Zucchini, too. The lettuce never grew.

That week I found his gardening books on a bookshelf in the bedroom my parents had shared. One, titled “Square Foot Gardening,” captivated me. To more efficiently garden in a small space, the author said, do not use traditional rows but instead break plots into sections of 16 square feet. Rather than seed rows and waste time thinning the wee seedlings, use a grid and drop one seed into each small hole. Each vegetable had its own layout: 16 carrots per square foot, four lettuce plants, a single cauliflower.

It sounded beautiful.

Order out of chaos.

I raced through the book, drawing gardens in my head. Tucked near the back was a plot my father sketched in 1987. It was on graph paper, precise, each plant marked by a dot. Onions, peas, buttercup squash, beans, broccoli, beets, eggplant, carrots, cucumbers and lots of corn. Meticulous and orderly when sober, he had used a ruler.

“Look what I found!” I said during a visit before leaving for Louisiana.

“I don’t remember that,” he said, refolding the worn paper.

A few months later, I tilled over my first fall vegetable garden. I had sent my father a copy of the plot, dots drawn on graph paper. I had broccoli, cauliflower and radishes. A few tiny carrots materialized, though never 16 in one square. The lettuce never grew.

Author’s note: This is dedeciated to all those who struggle with alcoholism and the people who love them, and those who lost the struggle and are no longer with us. An earlier version of this column was written as part of a week I spent at the Poynter Institute of Media Studies in February 2005.



Karen Price March 12, 2010 at 1:08 am

Very powerful, Pam.

Leigh Singleton March 12, 2010 at 11:10 am

So glad I found your blog Pam. You write beautifully!

Mary Ellen March 14, 2010 at 6:52 pm

You have a gift and can share your story so well. You surely touch those who read this, and hopefully we too can share the good the bad and the ugly that we carry with us. To grow and learn………

pamelacoyle March 14, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Thanks ME. We are all works in progress!

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