By Michelle Hiskey
The sky was darkening as the storm moved in during the last weekend of June. “If it rains, I’ll keep going,” I said, “but if we get any lightning starts, I’m going inside.”
“Just like golf,” Dad replied.
He sunk the metal shovel into the hard clay near the sidewalk in front of my house in Decatur. Gardening was our project this weekend, just as golf had been our connection for so many of my teenage years. But now I am 52.
After playing golf on scholarship at Duke, I focused on my writing career and raising a family. Dad is almost 79, very fit, still a golf professional and lay minister who likely will never retire.
As the thunder began to rumble, there were other looming moments. Dad and Mom live 650 miles away, in Maryland. I know our chances for one-on-one activities like this are numbered.
There was also this column to write, my final one for SaportaReport.
In the garden
Since 2007, when Dad invited me on a golf weekend that I wrote about for the AJC in a long essay, “Life’s Hardest Round,” he regularly asks me to take a trip like the fishing weekends he takes with my two brothers. Sometimes we meet up with my writing coach, Roy Peter Clark, and play golf and talk writing. The three of us even went to the Masters.
This year, I needed to stay close to home, and my garden needed work. On an overcast Saturday morning, the last one in June, Dad showed up with a trunk full of stunning impatiens and potting soil. I brought my gloves, tools and best attitude from years of therapy. As we prepared to pull the first weeds, I knew from experience that gardening with my dad was likely to break old ground inside me too.
“The thing I love about gardening is that I can work on whatever I feel like,” I remarked. “It’s one place that I don’t have a deadline.”
Dad is not like that, especially in these conditions. Because we didn’t have much time, we needed a plan. Plans help achieve Dad’s mantra: Work smarter, not harder. We quickly determined an overgrown corner patch offered the best chance to make the biggest difference in the least amount of time. There have always been a lot of -ers and -ests with Dad.
And there’s always been great vision. When he taught me to play golf, he stressed imagination—seeing how I wanted to swing, to play the hole, to manage the course. In the garden, Dad assessed quickly the existing plants, bird bath and rusty wheelbarrow that could be combined in a fresh, pretty arrangement.
“Here’s what I’m thinking you could do,” he said. As much as I tried to focus on could, I still heard should. In the presence of my dad’s strength and forceful personality—he’s more experienced in gardening, golf and life, after all—it’s always been easiest for me to say yes. It’s still hard to resist the old habit of programming my vision with his wishes.
I didn’t know what I wanted, and he almost always had ideas that seemed pretty sound, so I said yes.
The skies opened
No matter what nature (and the course) throws at you, a successful golfer learns to keep going. The players who persist no matter what are called grinders. Dad is one, and out of necessity (I wasn’t born with natural athletic talent), I became one too.
No matter what, I tell myself to keep going and believe that I can. It didn’t always look pretty or perfect (golf rarely does), but at the end of the day, it was the score that mattered.
Dad is still a grinder, especially when it comes to yard work. As the clouds rolled over and opened, rain filled the freshly dug holes for the plants, soaked through our clothes, and ran out of my garden clogs. I ducked into the carport to take a
break and a photo of Dad, still toiling. “It makes me tired to watch him,” my brother Pete once said, and I could relate.
“Let’s work over here next,” Dad said, pointing to another overgrown area. I took a big breath and joined him. No lightning, keep grinding.
Dad’s dad was like that too. Peter Marion Hiskey (1902-1987) had earned a living mostly outdoors—as a shepherd, a miner, as a greenhouse manager. During the Depression, he landed a government stimulus job building golf courses.
Gramps had been a tough critic watching Dad compete. When Dad gave up a career on the PGA Tour for a ministry of giving encouragement to others to live like Jesus Christ, Gramps told him he was foolish. Dad and Mom moved forward and raised us with great respect for our grandparents and even more for what they described as God’s purpose for our lives.
“Did Gramps ever teach you about gardening?” I asked Dad.
“He taught me about sowing grass,” Dad replied. “He told me, ‘Scatter broadly.’ It was good advice for giving, too.”
We had taken “before” pictures. As we worked, Dad would pause to admire what we had accomplished. On a sunny day on my busy street, lots of people pass on the sidewalk, and we even saw a few in the rain.
“You’ve taken what was practically an eyesore and made it beautiful,” Dad said. “This can be a blessing for someone walking by.”
Someone like a hater, I thought. We live in unincorporated DeKalb County, in a neighborhood established around 1960 without covenants, and within a fortnight of moving in 15 years ago, we received the first of several code enforcement violations. I returned home not long ago to find my Little Free Library gone—stolen, it appears.
I doubted I could explain the whole story in the rain without losing his attention, and if he did follow the entire narrative, I feared that he might judge my anger and frustration. In our family, it wasn’t ever cool to lose your cool. Right or wrong, I equated disagreeing with my parents to dishonoring them. Breaking habits this old sometimes starts with a baby step.
“I don’t really care what other people think,” I said.
“I know you don’t,” he said.
Argh! I wanted him to hear me and give his approval. I wanted to “win” by being right. Competing with him and seeking his approval still was part of my mindset, and it continued to interfere with what I could learn from his life experiences. My feelings frustrated me so much that I shut down, my mind trying to sort it all out.
Dad had changed over the years some, and in our dynamic as daughter and dad, athlete and coach—indeed, in any relationship—I had learned that the only thing I could change was me. He would never hear my whole side of the story if I didn’t share it. In the rain, I wondered if I could envision a common ground that respected his opinion and my independence. Hadn’t he done that with his own dad?
A new role
When the sun came out, Dad expected cooler weather. In Maryland, that’s what happens. In Georgia, it was a sauna.
We drank water and kept gardening. While he made a run to Intown Ace Hardware for mulch, ornamental grass and sunflowers, I weeded an entire tough patch. “You’re a champion!” he exclaimed.
It really was looking good, and no way could I have done this much in this short of time by myself—or with anyone else. By late afternoon, the kids were hungry and the routine duties of parenting called me out of the garden. Naturally, Dad kept going. In the morning, before I got out of bed, he was out there spreading the last layer of mulch.
It’s humbling for me when anyone gives such a quantity of time, energy and resources for my benefit, like my dad did with my garden. Saying thank you doesn’t seem like enough; another imbalance in our relationship.
He did mention some help he needed from me, regarding a series of letters that he had written to family members over the years with important lessons that he learned in his lifetime. “I need some coaching,” he said. “I need someone to tell me that they don’t have to be perfect.”
“I can help you,” I said. This is what I do. Coaching writers has become a bigger passion for me than writing. After four years of weekly blogging for Saporta Report, I want to make more space for helping people write their college essays, family histories and for my own unfolding memoir, Trophy Girl.
A fresh start
In the week since Dad returned home, more rain has fallen. The new garden is taking root nicely. I am on standby for pulling weeds and helping Dad with his letters project. I will do my best to give him and my writers the benefit of my experience grinding away as a writer.
I learned from him first in golf—and then on my own as a writer—the importance of observation, imagination, preparation, encouragement and approval. It starts with what we did that weekend in the rain: finding common ground and hopefully respect.
Like Dad, I need to remember as I hit “publish” on this post that it never had to be perfect and it never can be. It simply is part of my story as a writer, daughter, wife, mom and independent adult who has learned to keep going and help others to do the same.
To everyone who has helped me tell stories, has read those stories and shared them with others, to the great staff of SaportaReport—and to my important mentors like my parents—I sign off with faith and gratitude. You can reach me at [email protected].