Half an hour till our plane to Oklahoma left. I sat at the gate with my husband, Bryan, watching other passengers. A family went by on their way to the Tampa flight. The elderly man with them was the spitting image of my father.
I pictured them all relaxing on the beach, sleeping late and dining in fine restaurants, making memories they could savor long after their time together was over. “I wish I could get Daddy to go on a vacation like that,” I said.
My father never took vacation in the summer—that was gardening season. Truth be told, Daddy wasn’t one for vacations any time of year. For as long as I remembered he had worked all day: first on the farm where I was born, then in the local butcher shop.
I thought he’d finally relax when it came time to retire. Instead he took a part-time job in the local courthouse, working for the county assessor.
A few years later he ran for county assessor himself—and won! He also sold real estate and took care of my mother during her final illness. He’ll let his whole life go by without enjoying it, I thought as Bryan and I got up to board my flight.
Daddy’s ninetieth birthday was just days away. What memories of it would he have to look back on—another day toiling in the garden?
That’s just where I found him when we got to the house. For some people gardening might be a relaxing hobby, but not Daddy. The garden was huge—too big for a man his age to tend by himself.
There were rows of green peppers, onions, cucumbers and hundreds of tomato plants of different varieties that Daddy sold at the farmer’s market. “Isn’t it hot out here?” I asked him as he bent over an Early Girl tomato plant. “Come inside for some lemonade.”
“I’ll come in when I’m finished,” said Daddy. “There’s a lot of work.”
I sat out on the porch with Bryan and my brother and sister, who’d all brought their families for Daddy’s birthday dinner. “He hasn’t changed at all,” I said. “He just replaced his office job with that garden. He’ll never stop working. He’ll never learn to enjoy life.”
“He grew up in the Depression,” my sister, Carrie, said. “Back then if you didn’t work you went without.”
“You know what Daddy always says,” my brother, Delbert, said. “There’s no reason to be here on earth if you’re not useful!”
I shook my head. “It’s just a shame. Daddy doesn’t have to work so hard to survive now. He ought to enjoy life at his age. We’ll never get him away from that garden.”
I was no stranger to work myself. My first job was at the local drugstore when I was 13 and I’d been working ever since, either in an office or at home raising children. When I retired, I was sure I would enjoy every minute. I wouldn’t find new work for myself to do.
When Daddy was finally finished with the day’s gardening it was just about time to get ready for dinner. “I made a reservation at a place called Legends,” he said. “It’s the finest food in town. You’re going to love it.”
I was surprised to hear such high praise from Daddy for a restaurant. Fancy meals weren’t something he usually thought about too much. Food was just something you ate to give you energy to work. But he was certainly looking forward to the fancy restaurant tonight.
He dressed in his finest Sunday suit. He even wore his gold tie bar with the fancy “S” for Scott insignia. Could it be he’s finally appreciating the finer things in life? I thought as I helped him straighten it.
When we arrived at the restaurant I could see we were in for an evening of fine dining. Not Daddy’s usual style at all. “Scott, party of twenty,” I told the hostess.
“We’re all ready for you,” she said. To my surprise, she gave Daddy a hug. “You sure look spiffy tonight.”
I followed her to the table, completely amazed. She had greeted Daddy like a regular, as if they’d shared happy times together. “Has Daddy been treating himself to fine meals served to him by someone else?” I whispered to Bryan.
He gave a shy smile. “I’m just as surprised as you are.”
The waiters pushed several tables together and handed out the menus. Curried vegetable linguine pasta, tomato-caper chicken, parmesan-crusted veal scaloppine with green lemon butter sauce, filet of fresh horseradish-crusted salmon…everything looked delicious, and gourmet.
Daddy cleared his throat and I raised my eyes from my menu. “Whatever you order, be sure and go to the salad bar,” he said.
“We’ll have to get there fast,” said Delbert. “There’s already a line.”
We headed up to the salad bar. I could see why Daddy didn’t want us to miss it. I’d never seen such beautiful produce: crispy cucumbers and bright green peppers alongside cherry red tomatoes. “They’ve got Better Boys,” I said, piling a few on my plate. “My favorite.”
Daddy watched us all fill our salad plates, his hands behind his back, grinning ear to ear like a child with a surprise. I’d never seen him so happy—and it made me happy too.
It might have taken 90 years, but Daddy had finally learned to enjoy life instead of working. I’d finally gotten him away from that garden.
“Whoever makes the food here is top notch, Daddy,” I said.
Daddy’s grin got even wider. He nodded to a little sign framed on top of the glass case on the bar. I bent down for a closer look. The rest of the family crowded around. It was a picture of a farmer dressed in pin-striped high-bib overalls. Not just any farmer. “Daddy, that’s you!” I said.
Bryan read out the words below the picture. “Meet Fred Scott,” he said. “Fred has been growing produce for us during the summer. We buy all he grows.
"His Better Boy and Early Girl tomato varieties are hand cared for and much loved, grown using only organic fertilizers and no chemical pesticides. Fred is a welcome angel here at Legend’s.”
Turns out, Daddy hadn’t left his garden behind at all! And yet…had I ever seen a man so joyful as Daddy as he watched us enjoying his tomatoes back at the table?
After dinner the waitress wheeled out a special cake the staff had prepared with a big 90-shaped candle on it. I played “Happy Birthday” on the grand piano while everyone sang.
Folks from all over the restaurant came up to tell him how much they loved his vegetables. “You’ll never find a blemish on any of Fred Scott’s produce!” a man told me.
“They say he once picked 300 tomatoes all by himself in one morning!” said another.
A middle-aged couple called down from the upper level of the restaurant. “We can’t believe you’re ninety years old!”
“You probably can’t believe I grew every tomato in this place either,” Dad said. “But I did!”
All this time I thought Daddy couldn’t appreciate the finer things in life. But Daddy had found the finest thing of all: making other people happy by doing what he loved best in the world.
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