Christmas was lean for many of us due to the economy. My cousin Russ Wolters gave “white elephants” – chosen with thought and whimsy – as gifts to the 14 members of our family gathered around the tree.
Chip received an open-end wrench that had been buried next to a fence post for decades, and our college girl Alyssa got a faded print of sunflowers in a cracked frame for her dorm room.
Seeds surrounded my treasure, a freeze-dried 17-year cicada. Two years ago, northern Illinois was inundated with billions of noisy, munching cicada, and Russ immortalized one in his freezer. Packed around the insect, in a used cottage cheese tub, were tiny packets of vegetable and flower seeds saved from Russ’ 2009 garden.
There was also a cork with two fleas taped to it. The whimsy part, obviously!
Our grandfather, like many of his generation, saved seeds from his gardens and passed them along to his children. He taught them how to save family heirloom varieties, too.
In turn, Russ’ mom and my dad, sister, and brother taught us to garden, how to save seeds, and to enjoy the vegetables and flowers that had been brought from Hungary by Grandpa in 1912.
In our family, the most planted heirloom is a potato-leafed indeterminate tomato that looks suspiciously like Brandywine. Jenny, Russ’ sister, calls it Uncle Bob’s tomato, because she first got the seeds from him. We all plant it and relish the huge, flavorful slices on grilled burgers or as a salad sprinkled with shredded fresh basil and feta cheese and drizzled with wine vinegar and olive oil.
I grew up trailing behind Grandpa in his garden as he deadheaded, pinched, and fussed over his prize peonies, grapes, and vegetables. So enamored was the 3-year-old me that I pinched off all the peony buds and proudly brought them in the house to Grandpa.
He quickly taught me the fine art of weeding, and I was tasked to do it often. It kept me out of trouble, and the peonies bloomed!
Thanks, Russ, for a wonderful Christmas gift that evoked so many memories. Just one question: What am I supposed to do with the dead fleas on the cork?
If it’s edible and unusual, Doreen Howard figures out a way to grow it in her USDA Zone 4b garden. She’ll try anything once, even smelly Durian. A former garden editor at Woman’s Day, she writes regularly for The American Gardener and The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Garden Guide, and for Diggin' It..
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