It happened after we moved into our first home. We had shared an apartment and a rented house, but this was our first home. It was ample enough; it had a large back yard; the neighbors seemed friendly… We were in love and full of hopes and dreams.
I liked the kitchen area the most. The wall behind the sink had windows that reached half way down to the floor. The kitchenette room was our access to the back yard, so it had the large glass sliding door we so often see in suburbia. Even in the dark and dreary St. Louis winters we had light in that room. The day we moved in I sat down at the kitchen table and looked over my back yard. The king surveying his domain. I decided then and there that we would have a garden.
For those of you who do not know me: I am a doctor. There is nothing in my background or education that suggests that I should have a green thumb. My father was a college professor. I never saw him get down on his knees to pick up a piece of lint that may have found its way to the floor. Much less have his hands touch the good earth. I never saw the man dirty. I literally grew up in the university. Early in life I was told that it was my job to study and do well in school. None of my learning involved growing anything larger than a bacterium.
On the other hand, there was my grandfather. My mother’s dad, from the other side of the family. The ones that did not think of themselves as aristocrats. He was a farmer. He had a third grade education. He did not own a clock: he woke up when the roosters crowed; he went out on his farm to work; he came home when it got dark. Maybe because he allowed me to get dirty, maybe because I never saw a book in his house, maybe because he was so obviously satisfied with who he was and what he did, I worshipped the man.
I had tried my hand (literally) at milking cows. Never got more than a drop. I attempted to climb trees to bring down oranges and mangoes. Made it about 18 inches up before I fell. Even the raspberries, which were easily accessible, made me fail when I aroused an angry wasp. It stung me a few times. By the time I was seven I realized that farming was not in my future. While my cousins were experts at killing pigs and scaring the big tom turkey, I wondered what the hens were feeling as they laid their eggs, and I thought that it was a bit disgusting how some of them came out stained with stool or blood.
But now I had a house, and a yard, and no cousins around to make fun of my futility. I had some resources (the man at the hardware store). By God, I was going to farm. I was warned by some neighbors that tomatoes required a lot of work. I decided I’d start small, with flowers, and as I gained in expertise I’d move on to fruits and vegetables.
The man at the store suggested roses. They required some care, so that I would feel as if I’d done something useful, but they were not hard to maintain. They were beautiful, I could enjoy them most of the summer, and they came in a wide variety of colors and sizes. I bought a few bushes, and I promised I’d water and feed them as if they were my children.
The planting went well. I picked a narrow strip of ground immediately below the kitchen windows. It was the sunniest place in the yard, and when the roses bloomed I’d be able to smell their fragrance from inside. I did my watering, and I inspected daily to make sure the roots had taken. Soon I saw some evidence of growth, and I was overtaken with joy and a profound sense of accomplishment.
It was then that I thought about feeding. The man at the store had mentioned commercial fertilizer, but I knew from my grandfather that manure was God’s way to make plants grow. A secret here: I love the smell of manure. My grandfather ran a one man operation. He had cows, and he did not have the time to clean up after them. I still remember with tears in my eyes how happy I became after I crossed the river (my grandfather had to place a shaved log across the stream to serve as a bridge) and, before I could see his house, I smelled the manure. I’m convinced this is the major reason that I love circuses: elephant manure is an even more seductive scent than cow dung.
Luckily, I did not have to go far and wide to find manure. We had a dog, a black lab who was growing fast and ate an enormous amount. I decided I would surprise my wife with huge, beautiful roses. I volunteered to take the dog out every time that he needed to poop. I carefully picked up his body waste and laid it around all my rose stems. I was smart enough to know that it wasn’t all about manure. I took grass clippings and covered the dog manure with them, so that the casual observer would not have known that my rose bushes were swimming in dog waste. I kept on watering, and I anxiously anticipated my first bloom.
Within a week I noticed that my wife was acting strange. Thirty seconds after I threw a banana peel into the trash she’d empty out the can and place the plastic bag in the large trash can in the garage. She opened the refrigerator, many times a day, and scanned its contents carefully, only to close the door without taking anything out. She spent what seemed like hours looking at the cabinet under the kitchen sink; she felt the plumbing up and down; she even asked me once if I felt the cabinet floor was damp. She became irritable, and at one point she even said something to the effect that maybe there was something wrong with our new castle of dreams.
Things came to a boil on a Sunday afternoon. It was particularly hot, but there was usually a breeze that came through the house if we left most windows open. We had just sat down at the kitchen table to have some iced tea and just to talk over the numerous meaningless and necessary things couples need to discuss. Half way through the conversation she stood up abruptly and said: “I can’t stand it any more!” She walked away from the kitchen, almost in tears.
“Stand what?” says I.
“You mean you can’t smell this?”
“Smell what?” says I again.
“The whole kitchen smells like crap and you don’t notice?”
It was then that I remembered that of late I had been thinking of my grandpa a lot. How much I enjoyed my visits to the farm. The limitless grapefruits and berries; the black home grown coffee; the fresh eggs; the smell of manure…
“Is that why you’ve been acting so strange lately?”
“How would you act if your kitchen smelled like this all the time?” She was halfway between rage and tears.
All of a sudden I realized that my rose fertilizer was responsible for her distress. And now that she mentioned it, yes, it did smell of dog do in the kitchen, and, to a lesser extent, the whole house.
I had a decision to make here. I could wait until dark and move the dog manure far, far away. This would mean that the smell would miraculously disappear by the next morning. Knowing my wife, I was sure this unexplained miracle would bother her more than the smell itself. I decided to come clean.
“It’s my rose fertilizer that smells.”
“I make my own fertilizer. Like mulch. Dog manure and grass.”
“You put dog poop on your roses? Are you stupid?”
I said that manure was good for plants; everyone knew this.
“Not the dog kind!” She proceeded to explain, not without much agitation, about the difference between carnivore and herbivore manure. She said something nasty about people who had high IQ’s who thought they knew everything and ended up messing with other people’s minds.
I knew it was time for me to leave, fast. I opened the sliding door and went to work on my rose garden. By that evening our kitchen was almost back to normal.
I bought the store man’s fertilizer. The roses did OK, but they were not the best in the neighborhood. Not even close. I decided that I could only do something that I’d be the best at. Something that allowed me to be smart and creative. I gave the bushes away, paid some of my Hispanic patients to grow us a garden, and I chose to spend all of my time being a doctor.