When my father was young, he loved his vegetable garden. He had reconstituted the soil from the bedrock up with lime, manure, and peat moss. As he dug the beds, wearing his only pair of blue work jeans, my two sisters and I played in the turned earth, finding bits of blue-and-white pottery the Dutch settlers used centuries ago. When the soil was ready, my father planted in neat, clean rows. He mixed a foul-smelling fertilizer for his corn and told us how the Algonquins had buried a fish head in each mound.
My mother leaned against the railing of the back porch, barelegged, scratching the instep of one foot with the other, smoking. Dark-haired and plump, she was descended from Russian immigrants who shamelessly smoked unfiltered, mentholated cigarettes and lived to be a hundred. She dropped the ashes directly into a bed of petunias. My mother liked to grow flowers — roses, phlox, sweet williams, irises — but she was content to buy her vegetables at the market. Though she’d exclaim over the sweetness of my father’s corn, she was secretly just as happy eating frozen packaged vegetables.
My father didn’t let that deter him. He could grow almost anything. Cucumbers climbed green and prickly over white lattices, radishes sprouted in official lines, and tomatoes flowered yellow, then bulged hard and green, and finally blushed red and ripe. The only thing my father hadn’t been able to grow was kohlrabies, a cross between a cucumber and a white radish. Maturing underground, they should have swelled into luscious, pale green tubers. But each year, as carrots thickened and cabbages glowed in the moonlight, my father’s row of kohlrabies rotted or dried, producing only a few walnut-sized disgraces.
One year in the middle of July it stopped raining. The radio spoke of widespread drought, and the town began rationing water. At first the vegetable garden subsisted on a trickle while the lawn yellowed and died. But when all the hoses were finally turned off, the young plants began to shrivel. Corn baked in the sun. Tomato plants lost their color.
One evening, when my father came home from his job in the city, my sisters and I — plump, in braids, all with sad, brown eyes — burst into tears at the sight of him. We were crying for the garden.
“Do something,” my mother snapped. “You can’t imagine what it’s like out here, day after day. It’s like living in a desert — no sprinkler, no wading pool. I’m going nuts.” She lit a cigarette. “You have no idea,” she added darkly.
“I know, I know, you’re working, it’s the busy season . . .” A piece of lit ash fell on the pink slipcover of the wicker couch and burned a tiny hole in the fabric. “Goddamn, son-of-a —”
“Honey,” said my father.
“Don’t ‘honey’ me.”
“You’re just under a lot of stress, with Uncle Carl and all.”
My ears pricked up, though I kept playing with my sisters on the woven raffia rug. We had put most of our dolls under the coffee table to create an orphanage. The orphanage, I had decided, was someplace wet.
I wanted to hear more about Uncle Carl, not because he was anything more than a remote elderly figure to me, but because I could hear the tension in my parents’ voices.
“It’s inoperable, just a matter of months before —” My mother realized I was listening and lowered her voice.
But my father’s voice was louder. “. . . and if it runs in your family, you really should quit smoking. I mean it. Why take an unnecessary risk?”
They fell to whispers. The only thing I could make out was my mother demanding one more time that my father “do something.”
The next Saturday my father loaded us kids and six new garbage pails into the blue Chevy station wagon. He seemed distracted, even furtive, and he made the mistake of letting my sisters eat creamsicles in the back seat, where they dripped ice cream on the plush upholstery. I sat in the front as we drove north.
It was always a treat to drive through rural New York state. Little farms stretched out alongside the road. Each autumn we’d come out here to choose pumpkins and sample cider, buy gourds and honey still in the comb. But today it was full summer, the trees spreading a shady green canopy above the earth.
After making several turns off the main road, my father parked the car behind some bushes. Instinct must have led him to the creek, for there it was — gurgling, foamy, green and brown. Rapidly he put us to work, and we hauled water from the creek to the car in small buckets. The air was still and hot, dragonflies and bluebottle flies hummed past, and brown, speckled fish darted away in the creek. When the pails were full, my father eased the car back onto the road and drove home as fast as the law permitted.
He stored the water pails in the yard in the shade of a lilac tree. Twice a day, in early morning and at dusk, I’d water the vegetable garden with bucket after bucket of brown creek water. And the cucumbers blossomed, cabbages unfurled, and carrots grew leafy tops. Twice more that summer we stole water from the creek. My father never admonished us to keep it a secret, but we knew not to tell anyone. Had a state trooper stopped us on one of our clandestine runs, he would have been greeted by a trio of beaming, innocent faces, busily distracting him from arresting our only father.
As we pulled up at the house after our third trip, my mother dashed out to meet us. “He’s dying,” she blurted. “I’ve got to get to the hospital.” She was wearing a black dress, a hat, and pearls, but had forgotten to put on shoes.
“I’m going with you,” said my father. “Let me get out of these overalls.”
Our usual babysitter, Mrs. Hunt, was enlisted for the weekend. While my parents were away, my sisters and I watered the garden. Mrs. Hunt didn’t ask and we didn’t tell her where the water had come from. She was a firm, upright lady with the alarming habit of putting her false teeth in a glass at bedtime. She’d always ask if I’d said my prayers, and I’d lie and say yes, unwilling to disappoint her by telling her that my parents did not believe in such things.
My parents came home after the funeral. My mother wouldn’t touch or kiss us until she had washed her hands and had a sip of brandy; it was an old custom, she said, to keep death out of the house. For the next several days she was on edge. She’d snap at us, light a cigarette, squash it out. Meanwhile the water was running low in the barrels. I had to bend way over the edge in order to scoop up the last of it, which smelled like old leaves. At night, heat lightning flashed across the sky, and I could hear my parents quarreling in low voices behind their closed door.
Then one morning my father put on his blue overalls instead of his suit.
“Daddy, aren’t you going to the city?” I asked.
“No. I have work to do here.”
“What are you going to do?” my sisters and I chorused.
In a tone of complete seriousness he said, “I’m going to make it rain.”
Explaining that he needed a suitable vessel to hold water, he ceremoniously searched the house. We followed him. Bemused, my mother stood drinking coffee from the heavy white mug decorated with her initials.
“Aha,” said my father. He had pounced on a pink-and-white Wedgwood ashtray shaped like cabbage leaves.
“No!” said my mother. “It’s my favorite ashtray. It’s very expensive.”
“Do you or do you not want me to make it rain?”
“Sure . . .” she said dubiously.
“Rain requires a sacrifice,” he droned.
“All right, you can take it then.”
“A more serious sacrifice.”
“Oh, come on. What?”
“You must stop smoking.”
“Stop smoking!” I cried.
“Stop, stop, stop,” my sisters chimed in.
“OK,” said my mother, looking straight at him. “I’ll stop. If you make it rain. And not tomorrow or next winter but today.”
“Watch me,” he said. He grabbed the ashtray and filled it with cold water from the tap. We all followed him outside, where he began to sprinkle water at the sky, chanting something mysterious — fake Egyptian, from the sound of it: Ra man ra ra thoth toth rain ra. Soon my sisters and I were lined up behind him, whooping and yelling like a chorus in a B-movie.
“This ancient chant was handed down to me by a secret sage,” intoned my father.
“Rain!” yelled my littlest sister, optimistically wearing her red bathing suit.
“Rain!” yelled my middle sister.
“Rain!” I yelled.
When the ashtray was empty we went back inside, and my father changed into his suit and went to work.
Before lunch, it began to rain. Torrents poured from the sky. The gutters overflowed. The streets ran like rivers. The basement leaked.
It rained steadily for three days. Periodically my mother would say to my father, “But can you get it back in the ashtray,” and they would burst out laughing. It rained so much it was boring. We played Parcheesi, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, and Monopoly. We were so bored we lined up all the games together and played one huge game that took all day to finish. Then it stopped raining.
Leaves were trembling and wet, the grass was soaked, and the air was so fresh I could taste it. The cucumber trellises had fallen over, but otherwise the garden was flourishing. And, incredibly, the kohlrabies were huge. My father pulled one up, a white globe the size of a small pumpkin. He carried it inside, washed off the dirt, sliced it, and made a sandwich out of it on brown bread spread with butter and sprinkled lightly with salt. He bit into it, smiled, and said, “Ah, I’ve been waiting for this.”
After that it rained regularly, and the garden thrived. My mother put gourds in her ashtray for decoration. She had stopped smoking. By winter she too was round, ripening.
When my brother was born one spring night, my father drove me and my sisters to town for ice cream to celebrate. All three of us were wearing new matching nightgowns that shimmered like silk, with wide lace collars — a gift our mother had left for us when she went to the hospital. They were breezy and fit for princesses. And they were all the same color — a pale green tinged with sea blue, the color of rain, the color of kohlrabies.