Pushcart XLI: Cate Hennessey, “Beets” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre 17.2

I have three seed catalogs on my kitchen table this morning, all of which arrived just after the new year. The furnace is having a hard time—3 degrees at 7 a.m.—and it’s trying mightily but not warming the rooms above 60 degrees. So here I sit, wrapped in sweaters and slippers and scarves, listening to the soft hiss of the gas burner as it heats the kettle. Dogs breathe sleep on their blankets. The sky is blue and cloudless outside, crackling bright, stark beautiful. Four months until anything can go in the soil. We gardeners are a hopeful lot.

Oh, the lure of seed catalogs: beautiful flowers, vegetables you want to eat right off the page. Who could resist? But so much doesn’t show up in those pictures: the dirt, the bugs, the weather that won’t cooperate, the animals searching for a meal, the seeds that never sprout, the sprouts that never bloom, the fruits that warp or bubble or shrivel. I tried it once. Literally, once. I grew some sweet peas, not for the produce but for the flowers, germinating the seeds on my windowsill then transplanting them to containers in the sun. Lovely and sweet-smelling, if sparse, they attracted bees from miles around. Then there were the three cherry tomatoes that made it into a single salad. I’m a city girl; I’ll stick to the supermarket.

But I understand the impulse. What is a seed but hope? This tiny, ordinary thing, stuck into the dirt beneath our feet, will somehow turn into something growing and alive, something to nourish body and/or soul. Forget the thing with feathers; the speck in your hand, that’s hope right there. But that isn’t all a seed needs: an element of luck is required, too, or your perfectly-timed planting can be derailed by a late frost or an early heat wave. Or something more catastrophic.

Hennessey creates a nice progression as she moves from beets and seeds to hope and its unavoidable partner, luck, from her diningroom table and her catalogs to her grandparents, who knew more about planting beets when they were children than she’ll ever know.

That most hobby gardeners need to learn how to store beets, that I need to learn how to store beets, kills me. Busia and her sisters and rural Poland would have known this by age 8, maybe earlier. Would they have had names for different varieties of beets? Or was only one kind of beets grown in sub-Carpathian Poland between the world wars? I don’t know; the people I want to ask are all dead.

So often, by the time we know the questions we need to ask, the people who know the answers are dead. But they leave something behind, of only the desire to find out.

Hennessey’s grandparents met in the camps, and survived. Here she pays a tribute to luck, but recognizes its limitations and honors those not so blessed:

If there is redemption from war, it is in them….
Of course that I am here at all is a direct consequence of the war that threw my grandparents together. But there were millions and millions for whom the family story ends only in death, given not even the strange and eternal gift of trauma. A future woman looking at the bird feeder becomes impossible. So I am back to lucky. The millions dead quite outweigh the scribbling, this moment at the table in which the snow lies still and the trees flutter with birds.

We then close the circle and go back to beets and seeds, the catalog and the kitchen, but it has a new feel to it now, an element that we’d not seen before. There’s a history there, and the seeds mean more, the purples and reds are more vibrant because we know how it came to be that the catalogs span the table. That’s what history does, especially the intimate history of families and individuals: it adds undertones to what would otherwise be ordinary.

And by the way, I’m craving roasted beets right now, tossed with a splash of orange juice and sprinkled with a little nutmeg and salt.