We begin again in our potato patch
We plant our potatoes in April. Some warm weekend, toward the end of the month, my mother, father, brother, and I will tramp out to the garden, our arms replete with baskets and paper bags filled with potatoes, knives in our back pockets. We still wear jackets against the chill. I sometimes carry a tiny fuzzy gosling, hatched in our incubator and bonded with humans, in my breast pocket. The two dogs - Ginger, old and sun-loving, Tucker, young and exuberant to the extreme - come with us, giving the procession a vaguely circuslike air.
It is when we are all gathered by the garden, breathing the sweet smell of spring earth, that the traditions of planting really begin. We all have a role. My father prepares the patch, coercing our cranky tiller to life. My mother, Laura, makes tags to label the rows. The dogs roll and intrude: Tucker like a whirlwind in golden-retriever form, carrying potatoes off to bury; Ginger sniffing us for concealed doggy biscuits.
My brother, Gabriel, and I will settle on the brown grass with our knives, cutting potatoes for seed and watching my gosling (which by tradition is named Tootsie) peep across the grass.
Each piece of potato we cut must have one eye, one sprout, to seek the sun when planted. We toss the cut sets into baskets, keeping the varieties separate, the Pontiacs, Russets, and wild, fingerlike Purple Peruvians. And we listen. My father will be wheeling the tiller away when my mother will stop him. "Steve," she will ask, brow furrowed and hands crossed over her chest, eyeing the potato plot, "do you really think that's enough space?"
My father will study the plot. "It's as big as last year's," he'll say.
"Really?" My mother will ask.
My father will push his hat back, scratch his head, mumble. "Yeah. Last year's plot was, well, darn it, I can't remember. It was in the lower garden, next to the cucumbers, so six 15-foot rows. This is about that. It's close."
My mother will study the plot, one eyebrow raised. "Really? This looks smaller." Then after a moment of consideration: "Yeah, I guess it's close. But last year was a good potato year."
My father will scratch his head again, pull his hat back into place. "Um-hm. Do we have potatoes left over?"
"Some." My mother will say, "but we wouldn't have if the year had been bad."
They both squint at the patch. Gabriel and I look at each other and grin. They do this every year, the same discussion, the same gestures. Should our parents forget tradition and not have this conversation, Gabriel or I would prompt it, one of us asking casually if this really is enough space for the potato patch.
But in the end, it is always our mother who delivers the coup de grce. "You know," she'll say, "we eat a lot of potatoes. We wouldn't want to run out." And my father, taking this as his cue, will kick the tiller to life and add another row. We have never, to my knowledge, run out of potatoes.
When the extra row has been added, all the potatoes have been cut, and the hoes, stakes, and variety tags gathered, we begin to plant. The earth is soft, moist, deeply brown, and covers our hands with a dusty layer like pottery, making our skin feel shrunken, the ridges of our knuckles creased like river valleys. Gabriel and I do much of the planting, placing each piece of potato, eye up, into the furrow. Tootsie walks ahead of us, a ball of down on webbed feet, eating bits of debris and peeping in panic should we stray out of sight.
Laura and Steve walk behind us with the hoe, covering the potatoes and patting the soil into place. Tucker finds this torture, since his digging habit makes the garden forbidden territory. He sits at the edge of the plot, shaking, ears perked, woofing softly when he thinks himself forgotten, and mugging us with glee should we leave the garden. Every good potato eaten during the coming winter starts in this patch, with the dogs, the goose, the family, under this warm sun with the breeze just starting to hint at the summer, at the season that will bring these rough pieces of seed to maturity. It is a happy moment, the planting, a time best flavored by laughter.
WE HAVE been planting potatoes in April for as long as I can remember. Potatoes are a hallmark of our seasons: We find summer in the weeding of the patch, autumn in the dirt and discovery of harvest, winter in a plate of baked, steaming tubers. And spring cannot truly come till April, when my mother, hands crossed over her chest, dogs drifting around her feet, will ask, "Steve, do you really think that's enough space? We eat a lot of potatoes, you know."