Celebrating the Earth in Our Own Backyards

Previously published in The Washington Post 

When I visited my grandparents at their home in Northwest, D.C. on Earth Day, they were priming a portion of their yard for gardening, unaware that around the world millions of people were celebrating the earth and its various natural resources. April is National Earth Month, and in the D.C. area celebrations were held on the National Mall, along the shores of the Anacostia River and at parks throughout the area. I found myself appreciating a lifetime of earth-bound memories at home in my grandparent’s backyard garden.


My grandparents, Irene and Clifford Thomas, have loved gardening ever since I could remember. Saturday morning, I sat on a step and watched Grandma plant seeds in rows Granddad carved for her, pressing his foot on a shovel to turn over soil that had become hardened through the winter.


Gardening had become their second occupation after Grandma retired as a nurse from Washington Hospital Center, and Granddad retired as a chef from Marriot.  Planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering plants, and harvesting vegetables in their backyard and a community garden near their home has allowed them to stay productive into their 90s. They grow tomatoes, white onions, spring onions, and chives. They grow lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. They grow beets, potatoes, and carrots. I have helped pulled weeds from their rows of kale and collards.


We have talked about their gardening over the years.  Grandma has told me the garden is where she finds peace and balance. Granddad has told me he hated gardening as a boy, but he has been gardening with his wife of more than 70 years “to help her out.” It has been his love offering.


They have taught me lessons in gardening, and lessons about life based on wisdom gleaned while working the earth. Grandma taught me to pickle beets.  Be sure to make the sugary-vinegar juice extra strong so it retains its flavor even after absorbed by the vegetable.  Granddad taught me to make wine from red grapes they grew in their backyard, but reminded me that the Bible cautions against drunkenness.  They taught me that if you don’t pull weeds from the garden, the weeds will rob the soil of nutrients needed to grow vegetables.


I learned something new during my most recent visit. Realizing I must have looked lazy sitting on the steps as they toiled away in the garden, I insisted on helping. Granddad said I could use the rake to remove the dead roots he was digging up.


“Granddad, won’t these roots grow more veggies if you leave them in the ground?” I asked. He shook his head and explained that the roots he was digging up were roots from the tall oak tree standing a couple yards away.


“I have always loved that tree,” I said staring up at it, admiring its reach and the miraculous curves and twists of its branches. That tree had become, in my mind, a testament of endurance because it had survived Washington’s windiest winters and its scorching summers.  The tree had also been an annual reminder that harsh winters give way to bright summers. The tree had long been a source of inspiration for me. For Granddad, it has been a nuisance.


Granddad explained that the tree in question, a stately oak, had been only two feet tall when they moved into the house some 60 years ago. But as the tree grew, the reach of its roots threatened the vegetable roots underground and its heavy, looming branches pose a risk to electrical power lines.


“But it’s given you so much shade,” I reminded him.


He looked up at the tree. “I should have cut that thing down a long time ago,” he said.  “Ya’ll can get some money for it now, though. That’s good oak. That’s a lot of lumber somebody will pay for.”


Aaaah, there was a bit of common ground between us. We agreed that the tree has value. We simply did not wholly agree on what that value is – inspiration or income?


I have watched my grandparents keep their grocery bills to a minimum by gardening. They also canned and froze foods from their garden to sustain them through winter months. They shared fresh corn and corn-chowder they made with family and friends. They used greens and green beans from their garden for Thanksgiving and Christmas family feasts. I have watched them recycle egg shells, coffee grinds, and fruit and vegetable peels as compost to feed the soil that would continue to feed them, their friends and their family.

Saturday morning, I had gone to the Annapolis Wild Bird Center for an Earth Day celebration, but a personal celebration of the earth unfolded for me naturally back home in my grandparents’ own back yard.


D.C. has many community gardens where residents can enjoy and fully appreciate the earth. For a list of D.C.’s community gardens, click here: http://fieldtoforknetwork.org/community-gardens/.


Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a Washington Post blogger. She is also author of Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam (Harper) and Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam (Simon and Schuster). Follow her on Twitter @Sonsyrea. 


Here’s To You Granddad: For the Battles You Won Back Home

Previously published in The Washington Post. 

Dear Granddad,

I thought about you when I watched the new hit movie Red Tails that gives a long-overdue Hollywood tribute to the glorious Tuskegee Airmen you used to tell me about. Whenever Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day prompted me to ask about your military service, it always came down to your witnessing those unheralded Tuskegee Airmen.

“Those boys could some mo’ fly,” you used to tell me.  “Those boys would get up there in them planes and really show out. They had all kinds of tricks and dips…The Germans were scared of ‘em.”

As an Army man in the infantry, you were content to serve on the ground. I remembered your stories of drinking and playing cards, patrolling the bars keeping other American servicemen out of trouble. Nothing spectacular.  You were not a glory-seeker, in no way driven to excel in battle.  Your highest hope, your daily goal, was getting home to your family.

“I had Baby to get back to,” you would say, referring to your bride, who would be your wife for 72 years. You are definitely a hero in my life, and in our family.

As the movie began, and I wondered which of the war heroes would get killed before the movie ended. I felt suddenly more grateful that you had made it home. I remembered you bringing my first bike, a little red two-wheeler you taught me to ride without training wheels.  I remembered the life skills you taught in Dominoes marathons at your dining room table.  Play the hand you get. Adjust. Strategize. You can win even after a losing start. Stay in the game. Enjoy! I remembered the Christmas feasts, and the $20 bills you slid under the plate of each of your ten grandchildren. (That was a lot of money back then – especially to a kid sharing parents’ limited resources with nine siblings!)

I am so glad you made it home.

Looking at the youngest pilot in the movie, I was reminded that you were very young when drafted to serve in WWII.  You and your bride having migrated to the District of Columbia from Georgia just a couple of years prior to your draft, meant Grandma was left, pretty much alone. For two years she did not know whether her husband was coming home.  She laughs about it now. Says you told her, “if you can’t be good, be careful.” But the loneliness must have been challenging for her at the time.

When the movie depicted one of the pilots falling in love overseas, I considered how the war tested, but obviously strengthened, your marriage in ways neither you nor Grandma could know at the time.  Your 72-year marriage is your medal of honor in my mind.

You and Grandma conquered the years of loneliness and doubt, the disagreements, mistakes and misunderstandings. You built your lives together. Maintaining your individual careers by day, playing in bowling leagues, rising through the ranks of the Masons and Eastern Stars together, making ordinary marks of modest achievement on your way to an extraordinary milestone.  I bet there are fewer 72-year marriages than there are war heroes. So, here is my salute to you – you and Grandma.

Using modest means, you built homes together, raised your children together. You danced till wee past midnight, then got up and went to church – together. You sang in church choirs, served as deacon and deaconess for decades together. You worked your backyard gardens into your 90s together.  You enjoyed and nurtured your grandchildren together. So here’s to you Granddad.

The movie did not depict your experience in the war.  It missed the nuances of the ordinary men determined simply to make it home, but one movie cannot herald all the heroes.  You are my hero. I am glad you made it home. I am sharing this letter with the public because I am sure there are a million more granddaughters – and grandsons – who feel absolutely blessed just because you made it home.