Bending down to my task, I see him. The legs bent and wide apart. The left elbow braced against the knee. The belly, covered by the grooved fabric of an a-shirt, centering the gravity of it all. And the right hand gathers, grasps, and pulls-gathers, grasp, and pulls. Bending down to work, I see as him.
I thought of my father immediately as I put on the a-shirt this morning and went out to do a task he both loathed and loved, which he would finish with his shorts grubby, the thin fabric of his shirt soaked with sweat, and the beads rolling down and dripping, dripping off his nose. It is an image which even now I am somewhat hard pressed to reconcile with remembering him as a college president in Pakistan–with suits and ties, salaams and saluting, a company of gardeners at his disposal–when he was never so little clad except in the tall, cool recesses of the president’s house, stretching out on his bed for an afternoon nap, an arm behind his head against the pillow, his toes fidgeting till he fell asleep.
It was not like it was with Willy Loman, that my father was born to be most fulfilled with labor, with whistling while he worked, with getting his hands dirty with building a stoop. Dad was born to lead and learned to lead. In his career at least he did not, like Willy Loman, have “all the wrong dreams.” Before he met and married my mother, he walked away from what would have been an easy life in the Pakistan Air Force to teach at half the pay as a professor at a mission college. Later he would lead that college even though it had been nationalized and also the entire Church of Pakistan for a time as moderator. And yet, still, I have seen him after weeding happy and sweaty as a masdoor,* as he would call it, marveling at the wonder of work. I have also seen him bedraggled, dirty, and dragging home discouraged. I cannot pretend that the difference between these two states of his was not often simply the result of the proximity or lack thereof of me to him, of me being with him in the work or not. And yet in work, perhaps especially in labor with ones hands, it is the long drudgery of the weary days that makes the epiphanies epiphanies, the feasts feasts.
The weeds have taken over the entire garden, and I imagine Dad grasping my arm and looking in my face and saying in the hushed, excited voice he used to tell a truth, often again and again, “You know the Bible is so true. Look at how quickly the weeds take over.”
Thankfully, the ground is yielding and I am able to grasp out the runners and bunch up the crab grass and pull out its roots. Some of the thick pithy plants break off, leaving the roots in the ground, but I am lucky with most. The morning wears on and I divide the garden in two and try to decide whether I will finish the task of completing half of the garden or finish at a specific time, no matter what my progress. I choose the time–making a choice that I wish my father would have made more often. And, yet, as the finish line nears it becomes evident that I will not be done just on time. I press on and finish just twenty minutes past my target. A manageable task…a time to be done…with only a little extra wiggle room, seldom used, for finishing off some thing close to being done–I will have to remember that combination.
And while I weed, I think of the parables and of Genesis, of satisfaction and futility, of the weedy life I so often seem to inhabit, of the put-off efforts to weed it and the futility so often attendant when I do. And as the sun climbs higher and I weary of my labor under it–gathering, grasping, pulling–I pull out a big plug of grass with a large amount of soil. And even though it has been a very dry summer, from the soil the brown and earthy smell of loam fills my nostrils, and something changes. For a moment I feel the kinship of soil, echoing to our making, to its easy tilling, to feeling its life and substance as part of my own substance–me a cube of soil, with earthworms like mitochondria, shaped and breathed into–me a gardener working without toil.
I stop and think…I hope…that Dad, too, knew the smell of loam.
a wind blows softly
round smooth bared shoulders waking
something of eden