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New Potatoes

After a season of afternoons in the forties, yesterday, the thermometer hit 58 degrees, and the sun cast its golden glaze upon our yard and garden spot.

“I’m going to plant our potatoes today,” I announced around noon. “Mom says potato-planting time is always around Aunt Sybol’s birthday, and her birthday was last weekend, so today’s the day.”

A week ago, I bought two sacks of seed potatoes from Tractor Supply and carved them into smaller chunks bearing several eyes each. I spread out some newspaper in front of a window and set the potatoes on the paper so they could sprout and form callouses over their flesh.

By one o’clock yesterday, I was already in the garden turning the soil with our twenty-year-old, walk-behind tiller, being careful not to chop off a foot. As I tilled, my thoughts ran wild. Every time I find myself in my garden planting things, I think about my grandparents and great-grandparents and how they plowed their corners of the world with horses, mules, and manpower before they had engine-powered tractors and equipment. I come from a long line of farmers who loved the land, and the land loved them back.

When I was growing up, my family tended a large garden in our backyard. We, too, planted potatoes in rows, and when they were mature, we turned the soil with a pitchfork to reveal little pinkish-red potatoes hiding in the rich middle Georgia soil. We called them new potatoes, and my mouth started watering the moment I saw them peeking through the dark brown dirt.

For many years, we scraped off the dirt and skins using a bowl of water and either a paring knife or the edge of a spoon. But at some point, one of us realized we could blast off the dirt and skins using the highpressure nozzle connected to the water hose. That revelation was a game changer.

In the kitchen, Mom boiled the new potatoes until they became tender. She drained the water, slathered them with lots of creamy butter, poured a little milk into the pot, sprinkled salt and pepper onto them, and stirred it all together until a silky potato gravy formed in the pot. Voila!

As for the taste? Well, I think it’s safe to assume that boiled new potatoes are on the menu in Heaven.

But back to yesterday. With every step I took behind the tiller, I felt so hopeful — so damn hopeful. Indeed, at its core, gardening is an act of hope — hope that the tiny seeds I carefully distribute, cover with dirt, and care for, will bear fruit one day. After a year of being held hostage by a pandemic, it sure felt wonderful to hope yesterday.

By three o’clock, I was dropping potato plugs into deep trenches while I listened to the audiobook, “Shoeless Joe,” on my phone.

By 3:30, I was covering my potato chunks with three inches of loose soil.

By four o’clock, I was stowing my shovel, hoe and the tiller in the corner of the shop.

By five o’clock, I was on the porch beating dirt clods out of the treads of my shoes and cleaning dirt out of my fingernails with a nail brush.

By 5:30, I was inside the house, sitting with my feet elevated in the recliner, drinking a glass of sweet tea.

At six o’clock, I gazed over at my husband and said, “My back and arms hurt. I think I may have overdone it out in the garden today. What about you?”

He nodded. He had spent the afternoon with the chainsaw and commented that he didn’t have any feeling in his left hand.

At 3 a.m., I woke to the sound of raindrops falling on our roof. I thought about my thirsty potatoes in the garden trench and smiled in the darkness. As I shifted in the sheets, I felt a familiar jolt of pain in my upper back and shoulders — a reminder that most worthwhile things in this world come with a price, but aches and pains are a small price to pay for the delicious new potatoes we will eat in three months and the hopefulness I felt while planting them yesterday.

I’ll watch my potatoes grow and add dirt to the hills. Most of all, I’ll continue to be hopeful, because hope is a good thing, perhaps the best of things.

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