“Why do I have to give everyone in my class a Valentine’s Day card?” I asked my mother.

She shrugged.

“You wouldn’t want anyone to feel left out would you?”

We were together in the garden, preparing for planting tomato seeds. It was early in the season, but she didn’t worry about frost that might kill off a few seedlings, telling me that there were always a few that survived and that that was enough.

The afternoon sun caused long shadows to form, and the air smelled of wet leaves and damp earth. Her back was to me as she turned the soil in our garden with a pitchfork. Her dark curly hair was pulled up into a tight bun, and a few threads of gray were clearly visible against their darker companions. I had noticed more of the silvery strands lately and wondered what made the color change — was it from a certain food she ate or maybe that she had more worries or perhaps it was just inevitable.

She dug through the dry crust of earth to a layer of dark soil still moist from the last rain. Within the darkly colored loam, chunks of clay revealed pink worms that wiggled, their tunnel homes having been unexpectedly ruptured. Kneeling down to get a closer look, I noticed that where the tines of her pitchfork had entered the soil they’d left smooth shiny trails of compacted earth, many of them now dotted with tiny holes, some filled with severed worms that writhed and twisted.

“But I don’t even really know everyone in my class,” I said.

She paused and used her foot to try and dislodge a rock that had become stuck between two tines. When the rock didn’t slip out she tried to scrape it off on the sidewalk, which sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.

“Well, you are in fifth grade now, so it’s up to you,” she said, still unable to get the rock to budge. “But you should consider what everyone else is doing this year — you wouldn’t want to be the only one not giving out cards, would you?”

I thought about my answer carefully.

“Well … ,” I said and then took a long pause.

She stopped scraping the rock and turned to look at me, smiling.

“What?” I asked.

She shook her head and then lifted the pitchfork’s tines in my direction. “Here, grab the rock and I’ll pull,” she said.

I hesitated.

“Come on, grab it,” she said as she gave a little thrust of the pointed fork-like tines in my direction. “I want to finish this up before I start dinner.”

I reached up slowly and took hold of the rock. Its texture felt more like a chunk of broken concrete, and I remembered back to a couple of summers earlier when my brother Scott and I had found a bag of cement and used it to start the foundation for a new clubhouse that we never finished.

“I think some kids will give cards and some won’t, but it’s not that I don’t want to give out any cards,” I said.

“Hold on tight,” she said.

My mother then yanked the pitchfork with a quick jerk of her arms. I lurched forward, nearly impaling myself on the tool’s sharp ends.

“You’re going to have to hold on tighter,” she said, frowning.

I nodded and reached up. But before I could grab hold she lowered the tool back to the ground and leaned forward on the handle.

“Is there someone special that you want to give a card to this year?” she asked.

I kicked at the dirt and gazed down at two severed worms that squirmed near my feet. I wondered if they were halves of what had been a single worm or two different worms, and if they were the same might they fuse back together and then go on their merry way, or even if two different worms could they come together anyway and form a sort of chimera worm? I made a mental note to explore this scientific phenomenon later. When I finally looked up, she was grinning.

“You are blushing,” she said, lifting and thrusting the pointy ends of the pitchfork at me again. “Look at you, red as a beet,” she said and laughed.

I smiled back.

She shook her head and pointed with her chin to the lodged concrete stone.

“Last year I gave Christine a card along with everyone else and people said that I had a crush on her,” I said, hesitating before I reached up.

“Do you want to give Christine a card this year?” she asked.

I remained silent.

She sighed.

“You don’t have to tell me who, but would you please grab the rock again — I could use some help here.”

I lifted my hands and wrapped them tightly around the stone. It was cold and damp, and as I waited I noticed a worm had slipped from a clump of earth that clung to its side and was now nearly ready to fall back to the ground from its lofty perch.

“No, not Christine,” I said. “I was thinking about giving Veronica a card this year, though.”

Mom nodded slowly.

“Veronica,” she repeated.

“Veronica gave me a card last year that she’d made herself,” I said. “I really liked that.”

My mother readied herself for the pull, leaning back slightly and wriggling her foot into the earth for better traction.

“It was pretty cool and I want to make something for her this year that’s nice like that,” I said, “and I don’t want to give a bunch of store-bought cards out to everyone, especially to those people that I don’t really even know. Besides, everyone gets the same cards that everyone else gets with those chalky candies that no one eats anyway.”

“How about you just make Veronica your own card and we can mail it to her,” she said.

“Mom, would you?” I said. “I’d really like that — thanks for understanding.”

“Sure, we can do it as soon as we’re done here,” she said and smiled. “Now, hold on tight, this is going to hurt you more than it hurts me.”

“Wait, what … ,” I started to say and then she pulled, hard. Really hard.

What happened next is another story.

Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart and went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D. in biology at CU and became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. tfcarl@gmail.com

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