0. The summer after my sophomore year, I found myself back at home for the summer, working in a corporate office at a job that I was keenly aware others wanted badly, but that I nevertheless hated. I felt stuck, like an insect swimming in sap moments before it crystallized to amber, like I was suspended in a perpetual state of stasis while everyone around me was growing. I took refuge in my backyard.
1. The green beans were the boldest. For the first half of summer, the vines were frustratingly bare, barely crawling up the first few inches of their poles. Until, suddenly, it was their time, and they exploded with life: every day, it seemed, dozens of new beans would suddenly solidify from the delicate curls that they’d been just yesterday. Every day, they would need to be picked, adding to the half-flat (and counting) of beans in varying shades of green, of varying sizes, shapes, and lumpiness. (Every day, they’d make an appearance in at least two meals.) But without fail, every day would uncover several “old beans” nestled in the shadows, beans that had been missed in the past few pickings and that by now had grown thick and bulbous with seeds. It was impossible to keep up. Because wasting food is disrespectful—and because the “old beans” were probably more nutritious, anyway—those, too, ended up in our daily bean allotment, never mind that they were tougher to chew and bitterer to taste. To the chagrin of everyone else in the family, no amount of complaints or cajoling would convince Mom to slow down on her per-capita bean quotas for the household. Despite the stifling monotony of living in the same home that had seen middle school awkwardness to high school prom, there was still something special in the stability of a nightly meal, birthed from love and backyard soil.
2. Tomatoes were surprisingly tricky. Though generally familiar from years of summer planting, the little plastic tags that were supposed to tell what kind of tomato it was, and how to know when they were ripe and ready, invariably disappeared into the soil or faded from the sun. Tomatoes grew quickly, as a rule. Some were small, while others would grow larger than potatoes; some were sweet and juicy when golden, while others would cause food poisoning if eaten before they reddened. One kind seemed immune to sunlight entirely, staying a mottled aphid green until some of them started splitting on the vine, asserting their ripeness in the face of their growers’ obliviousness. The single plastic tag that survived told a lie: while the label suggested that those tomatoes were ripe as soon as their skin darkened from a new bruise to eggplant, it turned out that they needed at least two more weeks on the vine—maddeningly unchanging in appearance—before they could be eaten at all. It was only through trial and error, therefore, that any edible tomatoes were picked at all, much less any that tasted good. But tomatoes commanded respect, even jealousy. Every day the sterile corporate shuttle, chilled to an icy sixty degrees, ferried silent riders home after eight-hour workdays. The tomatoes, meanwhile, were not just tricky; they were vibrant, unruly, a reminder of nature’s complexity and unpredictability, and of just how delicious messiness could be.
3. The strawberries were shy. Strawberry picking at proper farms had happened in late May, and the refusal of the backyard plants to even flower by mid-June seemed a certain sign that these little sprouts were about to die, probably stifled by the rocky soil by the fence. Until, suddenly, it was their time too: their fate all but a foregone conclusion in June, they were forgotten until the first glowing fruits appeared in July. By that point the first lavender petals, the first tiny green nubs studded with seeds, and the first slow ripening had passed by unnoticed, so it was a shock to see not just one, but three tiny rubies nestled under tiny emerald leaves. Each less than the size of a pinky nail, they felt as precious and as perfect as newborns, and it felt almost criminal to eat them. But of course they were eaten, and each one was so gently fragranced that it seemed to suspend time—five seconds of sweetness in a painfully uninspiring summer.
4. Ten months after those first fruits—more like ideas, hypotheses, proposals of what we call “strawberries” than the real thing—our plants are blooming again, shockingly dense with dozens of pale, velvety petals. This year, I’m not missing their flourishing. It looks like we’ll have more than a handful; many are on the cusp of becoming proper strawberries.
All that’s left to do is wait.
(Initially submitted as part of final portfolio for Creative Nonfiction, spring '20)