My Mother was into punishment, that is, for me being her only son.
She was a driven energetic and creative human being who could give a doll to her only daughter to ensure the girl’s disappearance from my Mother’s tasks at hand…..which were many, including some not terribly necessary from an outsider’s point of view. I don’t think she ever experienced a bored thirty seconds in her lifetime even on her death bed.
I have learned through these, my last years of life, that I have been much like her, except for the punishment bit. I cannot remember ever being bored, and I, too, have handled certain tasks, the necessary and the unnecessary with full speed ahead as if I were a truck plowing snow.
Whether Mother was dusting furniture, vacuuming the carpet, wall papering, canning, conducting business on the phone, or working part time at a shop, or performing a thousand other tasks per week, my own endless energy and curiosity got in her way. I had questions to ask, noise to make with my trucks and attack air planes. I had to know what things were and how they were used. I was a boy.
My Mother had no time to put up with a likeness of herself and wanted me out of her way……punishment was the answer, whenever needed, for deed or no deed at all.
Hence, I discovered R. Atkinson Fox, the purpose of this post. And, I really do believe that from this punishment, and the spring and summer punishments being sent into our Victory garden during World War II to pick the potato beetles and hoe, weed, harvest, seed, and other duties, led to one of my primary loves of life…….landscape gardening.
The form of my primary punishment from age 3 to age 11 or so, was to be sent to a wall, to face that wall for about an hour, or until mother’s task was accomplished or her mood soothed.
Far above my three year old head I spied a print hanging on the wall of my punishments. Years would come, the years would go, but both wall and print never changed. It was a beautiful print, a landscape garden masterpiece print. Every year my life would make me taller and bring me closer, ever closer with each punishment to this masterpiece landscape garden print.
When I was ten I discovered a name scrawled across the bottom right hand corner of this beautiful landscape garden print…..”R. Atkinson Fox”. It must be the name of the man who painted such beautiful scenery, I thought.
When younger, I would cry or whimper at each punishment. But one gets used to certain patterns in life. The whimpers were more brief, until, worried that I might be sent somewhere else, I learned to pretend-whimper to make certain Mother knew I was ‘suffering’ from her will. Also, I learned quickly to complain about picking potato beatles…..dishonestly, I confess. My favorite place for punishment was the Victory Garden. There, I could explore, and since it was war time, I could dive bomb the beetles. I loved the sound of a stuka. It was its sound that captured my love, not the insignia.
I learned to love being around plants whether vegetables or landscape beauties. I noted in Spring the highest in value among my mother’s tasks was her organizing the ten by ten foot flower bed she’d assemble each and every year. This was a different Mother in action, as I viewed her work thirty feet away, safely playing ‘scenery’ in my neighbor’s sandbox. She was at total peace with herself and others. So was I watching her from afar, practicing landscaping in my sandbox neighborhoods making winding roads for my Tootsie Toy cars.
In this setting I was never in her way. Peace, at last.
Sandbox landscaping came to an end when I was fourteen. Mother was furious when she saw my maturing body still hovering over sand and arborvitae conifer twigs of my art work in the aging sandbox. “Glenn Herbert Ray, you’re to old to be playing in the sandbox.” Mother and I were generally no on good terms at that time, so just as angrilly retorted “I’m not playing in the sandbox. I am making scenery!”
But the damage was done; my male pride wounded. I moved off for other worlds to conquer, but never left the message or beauty of that sandbox, for I was making scenery and enjoyed every minute of it.
I have landscape gardened my entire life……the past twenty five or so years as owner of Masterpiece Landscape, Ltd here in the Twin Cities. We deliver a strange message in our landscaping…..that it, is an ART FORM…..as a matter of fact, the most revered art form of almost every culture from their religious past…….PARADISE is not a painting, or theater, or a book…..PARADISE IS A LANDSCAPE GARDEN.
I have known for decades I have been a very lucky individual, blessed in so many ways. I was so lucky to have been so often punished in my Mother’s manner.
One of the benefits of old age, again, if one is lucky, is to look back and follow the trail of ones memory. How did I get to this point of my life?
During the winter, a long one in Minnesota as you experienced people know, I bonded further with this ’Grand She’ of our household and at age eight on, I rose to unbelievable heights in her esteem for me. She had a profound weakness which distracted her from her own course of duties, needed and unneeded, in life…..conquering jigsaw puzzles……the larger number of pieces, the greater the victory. Neither my dad nor my sister were interested in sitting at the card table in the living room figuring out where the 1,000 pieces or more would fit to make a picture……and not just any old picture.
Television didn’t arrive in our house until my freshman year in high school
Every single jigsaw puzzle ever placed on that card table had to become a picture of a beautiful garden setting. No other pictures could send Mother full speed ahead toward puzzle completion, nor completion of any other Mother tasks, the needed or unneeded. When the livingroom walls were painted, the jigsaw puzzle laden card table was placed in the middle of the room, no matter what the consequence.
No threats were made, but all three of the rest of us in the family knew her jigsaw puzzle table was sacred. God help one and all if it were ever disturbed. It never was. Actually, she painted or wall papered all the faster, so she could take a rest at that very table to set more pieces. “Glenn, get over here and help your Mother!” She loved my assistance. I gladly obliged and sensed that any mistake I had ever made in life, the real and the unreal, was purged from her memory.
Mother was an accomplished jigsaw puzzle solver. Naturally being a male, I wanted to beat her. We never said anything about this sweat, but I had a quicker, keener, younger eye. She never had a chance, but never complained. She was proud of me. We seldom got tired ‘picture puzzling’. We bonded tightly.
By the time I was nine, because of the frequency of Mother punishments, I became King of the Victory Garden. Frankly, no one else ever went there after spring cultivation and seeding. I made daily visits, some forced, some voluntary. It was a good place for us boys to play guns where we could shoot Nazis hiding among the corn stalks. No one knew more about this vast area of vegetable production than I regardless of age. I knew when the green tomatoes were big enough for frying and red enough for table and producing enough for canning. I was the only one who did the harvesting, when the cucumbers were big enough for pickling and the big cucumbers good enough for canning chunk pickles.
“The only thing I don’t like about gardens,” my Mother would complain, “it’s the bees”. If stung, her wounds really did swell up…..so I was sent to the fields instead. It was okay if I got stung, but I never did.
We, rather I, grew our spring potatoes on ‘hills’ for easy harvesting. My Mother’s German father recommended this. Hunting for the appropriate potatoes, those of the proper size was like hunting for treasure for a boy of 8, 9, or ten years. I had orders to ‘pluck’ the larger ones so we could get the most out of the crop. There was an art to plucking. One was to stick one’s strong hand into the soil and probe until the touch found a good tuber for plucking. Since the edible part of the potato is this swollen stem and not a root, the harvest can be somewhat extended by allowing more ‘tubers’ to gain size in a season. To be German was to be frugal.
The problem here is one couldn’t see what one’s hand was touching underneath the soil. There is a downside to this harvesting of spring potatoes. The hand may send a message regarding the right size for picking, but the hand doesn’t anounce the health of the underground potato.
Have you ever smelled a rotten potato? How about one you’ve squished in you hands while probing underground for the harvest?
Well, even at ones young age, one does survive squishing rotten potatoes, but one never forgets the smell. Besides, I was never allowed to complain, and early on had learned the benefits from not doing so.
Furthermore underlying it all, I did know perfectly well, the Garden is where I wanted to be.
Was there ever a R. Atkinson Fox in your past or was I just lucky?
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