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The year of the watermelon

Am I asking for too much in life? I wonder from time to time. To have all I have, and yet still wish to grow a pumpkin? And the answer is always, No. Someday, I will grow one.


Alone in the abandoned chicken coop in our back pasture, my ten-year old heart swelled with pride as I squatted down to better see the tiny curled tendrils emerging from a pumpkin plant the size of my hand. My six-inch secret garden had been inspired by my Grandma Vinson, who loved plants. She said she couldn’t live without trees. From seed she had grown orange trees like the ones from her girlhood in Florida, flowering four o’ clock bushes, and a jungle-like riot of wild greenery around her front porch. Indoors, spider plants and aloes haphazardly sprouted from small animal-themed crockery all over her home. Last time we visited, she and my Uncle John had told me about a moonflower vine she grew that opened its huge white flowers only at night. It sounded magical, and I had been looking for moonflower seeds ever since then, surreptitiously scanning seed displays on family trips to Walmart or plant nurseries. The moonflower evaded me, but white pumpkins, I figured, were close enough.

Our rock-hard, heat-cracked back pasture was home to tough-stemmed yellow-flowered weeds, short-grazed grass scorched into straw by the heat, and wizened thorny mesquite trees that grew sideways as much as they grew up. The pumpkin plant was a foreign visitor here, a miraculous anomaly, with its broad leaves, effervescent growth habits and delicately coiled tendrils. Every day that it thrived was a new surprise, and I brought it water and gave it shelter, hoping for a glossy round white pumpkin as magical as a moonflower.


I don’t remember what happened or how far along it bit the arid Texas dust— whether it ever flowered or budded into a tiny green pumpkin first— but I do remember it grew enough to give me the hope of a harvest that never came.

During the two decades that have passed since then, as I’ve grown herbs and tops of onions in water and little four-inch houseplants along the years, I’ve often wished for a four foot square piece of land under full sun— a chance to try again.


Am I asking for too much in life? I wonder from time to time. To have all I have, and yet still wish to grow a pumpkin? And the answer is always, No. Someday, I will grow one.


As fate would have it, sixteen years later I had a conversation with a man who, I discovered, had a similar life aspiration: to grow a watermelon.


Even better, I was already married to him at the time.


Since this discovery five years ago, almost every summer we have tried to grow something, with watermelon being the holy grail. Each summer we have been thwarted by plant diseases and/or a crippling lack of sunlight on our apartment balconies. Our proudest moment was in 2017 when we got a couple of baseball sized fruits before the plant died.

That year, we also got focused on growing a different kind of watermelon, and all of our once-thriving houseplants shriveled in the effort to care for our tiny humans.


See that thriving vine draped along the wall in the background as Emika sets up the crib?


Yeah... that died.


With one baby in 2017 and another in 2018, pretty much every one of our plants died.

But the dormant desire to grow a gourd or melon popped up again: When we were searching for a home last year, a major consideration was whether or not there was a yard. With full sun.


There was a backyard in the rental house we settled in, a backyard dappled with the shade of pecan trees. But in the front, on a protected mound of mulch upholding a leafless tree that had propitiously kicked the bucket, the sun cast its rays unhindered. It was the perfect place to plant.


January 2020 rolled around. “What do you think”, I asked cautiously one day at the kitchen counter, holding packets of seeds, the ghosts of years gone by. “Is this the Year of the Watermelon?” I hoped, but at the same time, did not dare to hope. “Oh, totally!” Emika replied, with the same instant and complete conviction that he’d had the year before when I’d asked him if he thought I was in true labor. (I was; Judah was born three hours later.)

Riding on this iron conviction, we sowed our watermelon seeds. But, in faith mingled with foresight, we planted a generous twenty. Having a rough idea of our general skill in watermelon-growing, we also planted twenty other kinds of herbs and vegetables, hoping that it at least it would be the year of something, (anything!) growing to harvest.


Our 2020 watermelon plant

Many died almost instantly. One scraggly, fruitless, dwarf-sized watermelon vine has survived to midsummer.

In the frantic fray of planting, pumpkins and cantaloupes also made it into the ground. Our pumpkin plant grew vigorously for a time, but as one might expect, it too died shortly after a tiny bulb of a pumpkinette appeared on it.

Hope thwarted once again

Meanwhile, in the shade of the house, a small and neglected cantaloupe plant quietly sent out its tiny leaves.

The cantaloupe

One day, we found a little cantaloupe, just sitting there unassumingly.


To our surprise, as we waited, the plant didn’t die. The melon even started growing the network of veins that crisscross most ordinary cantaloupes, but then seemed to forget to finish. And one day, the cantaloupe began changing color. Was it dying? Or was it ripe?


Emika googled. A man in a YouTube video demonstrated how the slightest tug causes a ripe melon to fall from the vine. He pointed out the wound at the apex of the melon where the vine had been attached, and to our surprise, smelled that spot appreciatively.


Hmmm.


Around the corner, in the shade of the house, I picked up our funny looking, yellowy smooth-skinned melon, and it fell off the vine into my hand. It was too late to go back now. Questioningly at first, but then appreciatively, we inhaled the fresh, empowering, cantaloupey fragrance at its vine-wound, and felt that we had conquered nature.



We tried our two pound melon that night. it was meltingly ripe, but still tasted just like an ordinary cantaloupe. No vine ripened taste privileges for us. But still, we were happy. We had grown something edible at last.

It was the year of the watermelon.




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