I come from a family of immigrants. The American way, I guess.
My grandparents moved to Miami from Jamaica in 1979, settling in a small two-bedroom house in Richmond Heights.
My recently-married mother moved in a year later, in 1980, my dad following in May 1982 (spent their first year and a half of marriage away from each other; one of the many things that’s a glaring example of how different things are now than back then. I doubt I’d make it that long).
I came around in 1983, part of the first generation of our family born in the states, me and my parents bundled up in one of the bedrooms at my grandparents’ with a mattress and a crib for two years, until my parents saved enough for us to move into a small apartment in a tolerable part of Cutler Ridge.
Even after that move though, my grandparent’s house was the default when it came to babysitting. Both my parents worked full time—Dad in retail, Mom in insurance—so we made a lot of visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s.
My grandfather was a farmer in Jamaica, with acres of land and a knack for producing a variety of crops.
Born in 1906, he was one of a large group of individuals that came to the states during World War Two to help the shorthanded farming industry.
Forty-or-so years later, he was still at it, and by time he moved to Miami at 73-years-old, the routine and lifestyle of a farmer was so ingrained in his persona it had become a part of who he was, at his core.
As a result, I never knew what a backyard was until 1992, when my parents moved my sister and me from that crappy Cutler Ridge apartment into the three-bedroom suburban house I’ve called home to this day (despite it being 1,500 miles south of my current location; home is home is home).
Prior to that move to suburbia, the space out back of my grandparent’s house in Richmond Heights was the only patch of privately-owned land I frequented, and in no way could it be considered a “backyard.” It was, for all intensive purposes, a farm.
Day in and day out, my grandfather would be out there, sunrise to sunset, planting, cultivating, harvesting. And I joined him a lot of the times, sitting next to him on the dual stools he brought out whenever I was over, cutting (and chewing) sugar cane and schucking gungo peas out of pods (I found out much later gungo peas are called pigeon peas in America) for my grandmother to cook that weekend in a huge pot of rice and coconut milk for our weekly Sunday dinners.
As a result, I always associated my grandfather with nature—with the natural—and nature with him. The smell of grass, dirt, that long-standing sweat that seeps into worn-out clothes and gives it this musky scent that never really leaves, no matter how many times you wash them, no matter how faded they get. His callused hands, wide and firm. The feel of his beard, always prickly by the end of the day so when he rubbed his chin on my cheek during a hug it felt like light sandpaper on my skin, tickling and scratching at the same time.
To me that was all Grandpa, all the time.
Grandpa taught me a lot about nature in those years before I became a teenager and fell into the inevitable trend of not-hanging-out-with-your-grandparents-anymore. But one of the things I remember most was something he told me later on, during my high school years, in my own backyard in that suburban house I still call home.
When we moved in, my dad had given my grandfather—his father-in-law—a piece of our backyard to use for farming. Years passed and I rarely paid attention to the area, taken up with my own experiences, far removed from the rural life my grandfather was so used to. His presence was always welcome though, and it became a common occurrence for me to be home after school for hours, going about my business and thinking I was alone, only to hear the sliding glass door in the back open right before sunset, my grandfather tottering inside, hunched over from the extended period on his knees or sitting on his stool.
One day after school—high school, so it was late 90’s/2000-2002, around there somewhere—I was bored and I heard him clinking around back there. It was close to summer then—which in Miami basically means it is summer, the haze of heat shimmering up from the grass outside, visible even from the air-conditioned safety indoors.
Most other people’s grandparents who were hitting their mid-90’s were either dead or on their way out, but here was my grandfather outside doing things that would have had me complaining.
For some reason I don’t remember (it couldn’t have just been boredom, I had video games for a reason), I decided to join my grandfather back there that day, watching him as he dug up the grass and soil to plant seeds, gripping his shears with gloved hands (unnecessary, honestly; his hands were like gloves on their own). Watching him work his way around the plot sparked my interest, his ability to create life from nothingness. And he must have seen something in my eyes that day, because he ended up giving me a small patch of his allotted area to plant some fruits.
Changing into yard clothes, I grabbed the pair of gloves and small hand shovel my dad kept in the garage and got in the dirt next to Grandpa, doing everything he told me, digging into the hardened earth and turning it so the soil was nice and thick and black, shoving the seeds deep in and patting the area down, not too tight, room for air and water. And for about a week I was obsessed with the notion that I was growing something on my own, out there every day waiting for a sprout, for the tiny buds to poke up from the soil and expand into edible goods, the way I’d seen my grandfather do for so many years.
At the end of that week though, all I saw was the same patch of damp soil. Flustered, I came at my grandfather like it was his fault, asked him what was going on. What’s wrong with the seeds? Why’s nothing happening? Where’s my damn avocados? (I was in high school, so I knew it wasn’t going to grow overnight, I’m not stupid. But I did expect to see something)
And my grandfather laughed, sitting on his stool and schucking his peas, gnawing on his piece of sugar cane. Told me, in his heavy patois accent:
“You cyan rush dem tings. Is still just dirt and seeds. You must give it time. Let it grow.”
Years later, while teaching my first semester of Introductory Creative Writing courses in graduate school, this little piece of advice came back to me.
Teaching has a way of making you look at your own personal philosophy, no matter what your craft. It’s hard to teach others how to be better at something when you barely know what/why you’re doing it yourself. So, in thinking about my own motivations and techniques I realized that—when it comes to writing—the closest metaphor I can find is borne from my grandfather’s statement.
I rarely get writer’s block, simply because I always think of that first draft—whether it be a novel, a short work of fiction or non-fiction, or even a poem—as mostly dirt, fertilizer. Literally, crap. 99% of it at least. Which makes it a lot easier to just sit down and let the crap out (gross, I know, but really, really accurate)
But I also know that, buried in that crap, are a few seeds.
Some seeds grow, others don’t. Regardless of the end result though, all seeds need attention, a bit of cultivation.
The second draft is where the writer’s true farming begins. The time, the hard work, the mental version of water, revision and cutting and rewording and rewriting the equivalent of harvesting and processing.
My grandfather lived to be 103 years old, died three years ago, surrounded by his family. His legacy: thirteen children, thirty-something grandchildren, another fifty or so great-grands and a couple of great-great-grands (these are in no way exact numbers, obviously; just know that my family is freaking huge).
I know each of us have hundreds of memories of him, and dozens of specific ones that define who he was to us, what made him this almost mythical figure in our minds.
This is one of mine. “You must give it time. Let it grow.”
R.I.P. Roland Johnson, May 15th 1906-May 21st 2009