The Strength of a Tomato Bush
A MILITARY SPOUSE’S TAKE ON HOW GARDENING KEEPS HER GROUNDED
I stood there in our tiny backyard with the Florida sun gently settling and the humidity thick and glistening on my skin. My ever-growing belly dripped with sweat. Tears welled up in my eyes as I took in the damage. Tropical storm Flo had not only destroyed my vegetable garden, but she had ripped away the last shred of control I had.
Since childhood, I’ve felt the magic that happens within a garden. Some of my fondest memories are of summers filled with the sweet smell of magnolias and gardenias from my grandmother’s flower beds. Sitting with my nana on her porch, splitting peas, and knowing that my grandfather was making his special pepper sauce “just for me,” is a memory I carry deep within my heart. I treasure those summer evenings spent walking in the garden with my daddy just to see what looked good that day. Even as a teenager, I grasped at the opportunity to walk that garden with my daddy as this provided us a chance to spend some quality time together.
My heart broke into a million pieces as I continued to look around my little garden, surveying the damage. Hot tears of despair and frustration continued to roll down my cheeks. Those tears weren’t just for the loss of my garden. Those were the tears of a woman who had been strong for too long. Those were tears from the news eight months before, that the baby I now carried in my belly might not make it. Six months earlier, when my husband was suddenly slated for a last-minute school and subsequent deployment, I held back those tears. I refrained from letting them drip down my face just two days earlier, while in pre-term labor on the Buckman Bridge, en route to Naval Hospital Jacksonville in a torrential downpour. Even the very night before, as I lay eight months pregnant with nothing but the sound of the 80-mile-an-hour sustained winds of Hurricane Flo, holding onto nothing but my two precious children, I didn’t shed a tear. But in that moment, surveying the ripped-up herbs, a cucumber trellis that had been blown away, and broken tomato bushes, I lost it.
This little garden had been the last project my husband and I did together before he deployed. It was a special surprise he and my daddy put together just for me. They must have known that in the coming days and months I would need to feel groundedand remember my roots. This garden was to be my saving grace—the one thing I had control over. There would be no surprises in this garden, unlike the rocky lifestyle we led.
In a garden, if you plant a cucumber seed, a cucumber vine will grow. A tomato plant will provide a summer’s worth of plump, juicy tomatoes. Water the plants in the early morning before the sun rises too high when they can best absorb this vital ingredient, and they will flourish. Spray a little vinegar water mixture on their leaves and the bugs won't eat them up. In gardening, you get as good as you give. If you care for your little garden, pluck the weeds, and make sure the roots are planted deeply in the soil, your hard work will yield a nice harvest.
Military life is never that simple. There are surprises around every corner and control is something we learn early on that we never have. The previous year had been a perfect manifestation of having no control over my life.
Those hot tears were loaded with frustration, sadness, anxiety, and downright anger. “This isn’t fair,” I wanted to scream. “I'm not strong enough. It's all too much. We don't deserve this! What was I thinking marrying a military man? What have I done to my children? Why is this so hard?” All of these thoughts swirled within my mind as I plopped down on the two-by-four next to my mangled plants, with my head in my hands.
When I heard the patio door slam I tried to quickly wipe my face and get myself together. It was paramount that my children not sense my anxiety and frustration. My two brave babies came and sat down beside their mama. They began to comfort ME! Suddenly they were the strong ones."We will help fix it mama," I heard my sweet ten-year-old girl quietly whisper. "Look, this one isn't so bad, mama. There's even still a tiny tomato on it," her seven-year-old brother chimed in.
At that moment, I found strength in the faces of my children. I heard the wisdom from those childhood walks with my daddy spew from my own mouth. I shared with them how we must choose to be like that tiny tomato bush. I’m not exactly sure who needed to hear that most—my babies, or me. I told them that when the storms of life swirl around us, we have to fight, to stand tall, dig in, and remember our roots. Sometimes when everything seems like a hopeless mess, there's just enough room to build something even better. Little did my husband and daddy know that the little raised garden they fashioned for me would serve a much deeper purpose than a simple hobby. It completely changed my perspective. It reminded me when I needed it the most, that I am strong. Just like that tomato bush!
Erika Hope Bradley is a Navy wife of 10 1/2 years and mom of three. She’s the founder of Dependa Strong, a non-profit organization created to raise awareness of mental health challenges "dependents" face and combat them with community. Erika is passionate about advocating for our families and creating change that will have a positive impact on the quality-of-life issues that affect our community. Recognizing gaps in resources for our high-school-aged military-connected students, the organization is launching Semper Fortis Recruiting for military kids.
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