It’s interesting what triggers memories — a certain smell, a song. In my case, it was the dew soaking through my dirt-caked shoes and socks as I photographed Rene Garza harvesting vegetables at Frank Oakes Organic Farm near Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on a chilly December morning. I was shooting a story about locally produced food, and this image was going to illustrate the agricultural side of the story.
As I photographed Garza, I thought about working with my father on our land in Delaware. Dad’s a sculptor who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland as a boy, grew up in rural Kansas and served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam. He got damaged in the war and came home to become an artist. Now fireworks give him flashbacks and sometimes when he shaves, he will snag a small piece of shrapnel lodged in his face.
Whatever hurt my father caused in the war, he’s been trying to make up for it since. He feeds a flock of crows every morning. His barn became a halfway house for feral cats. Friends brought him wilted unwanted plants and he nursed them back to health. Dad even refused to use insecticide. He says the bugs have just as much right as we do to live.
Dad despises all things modern and is incapable of throwing anything away. His barns are packed with building supplies, old car parts and rusty bicycles. Friends store furniture there and never return to pick it up. He has half a dozen old cars and lawn mowers scattered around the property, returning to nature under a quilt of fox grape and honeysuckle.
Growing up, I winced at my father’s eccentricities. He railed about the government, big corporations and organized religion. He made simple things difficult. He would take me to the Christiana Mall and we would get trapped in the maze of grassy medians in the parking lot. As he searched for an exit, Dad would holler how he wanted to “neuter whoever designed this place.” He was always threatening to neuter people. I rolled my eyes while he connected our predicament with the downfall of America’s industrial strength and the collapse of our education system. Other parents seemed to have no difficulty finding the mall exit.
A particular irritant for me came every year at Christmas, when my father insisted on getting a live tree with the roots intact. Dad said it was shameful to kill a tree to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Instead we had to dig up the tree and keep it outside so dirt wouldn’t get tracked into the house. There was no sitting around the fire and enjoying the decorations. To admire our tree, we had to stand outside in the cold to ogle a shaggy pine tree with a burlap-wrapped root ball bleeding mud across the brick patio.
Now when I go home, I sometimes wander aimlessly around the property. Everything is sagging and overgrown. The red wooden barns lean precariously in one direction or another. They are stocked with cats that look like their ancestors that I once knew. Dad has fig trees, peach trees, cherry trees, and wild raspberries and black berries. Most years he has a garden that yields tomatoes, squash, lettuce and cucumbers. On these visits I invariably find myself standing on the back lot amidst a grove of giant pine trees.
These are our old Christmas trees. Looking up at them after all these years, I realize Dad’s vision. It’s beautiful.
I’m grateful to have photographed Garza that December morning…if nothing else than to get lost in my memories. My father is growing old a thousand miles away and I’m missing it. I’m afraid I’m going to miss everything. I think about that a lot.
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Connect with Tristan Spinski at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tristin-spinski/