By Paul Schubert

I am not the first to discover that a young man’s best-laid plans can be overturned in an afternoon, but that realization hit me with the impact of a well-aimed shovel when I was a young man of fourteen.

In 1940, I was in sixth grade when my family decided to move from Chicago to rural Wisconsin. My city-born-and-bred parents sold their neighborhood delicatessen to begin a new life running a mink ranch. We moved from a small one-room city apartment to a large two-story country house that we would share with relatives. I transferred from a huge three-story elementary school to a tiny one-room country school.

Needless to say, Davidson School was a radical departure from the Chicago schools I had attended. Here, one teacher taught twenty-eight pupils ranging in age from four to sixteen. When he needed help, an eighth grader would step in to assist with projects and even teaching. In addition to the usual subjects, I studied something specific to rural school districts: agriculture. Fascinated by the glossy pages of the agricultural textbook, I decided to apply that knowledge.

Paul and parents. Courtesy of Paul Schubert.

My parents and I shared our house with my father’s sister, Tante Lottie; her husband, Onkel Bruno; and their son Rudy, who was also in the sixth grade. They lived upstairs, with the home’s only bathroom, and my parents and I lived on the first floor, with a direct door to the outhouse. Together, Rudy and I fed, watered, herded, and bedded the animals, but each family planted our own garden plot.

Despite our high hopes, our first-year harvest was disappointing. I saw this as a challenge. The dream of a huge, luxurious, produce-filled garden bloomed in my imagination. I announced that I had read enough about agriculture to take responsibility for preparing our garden soil for the next summer.

Following my textbook instructions carefully, I created a mulching pile and fed it daily, conscientiously keeping it moist, so the organic material would decompose and produce a marvelous substance called humus. All summer I faithfully turned over the material in my mulch pile, guarding the resulting mix the way a miser guards his gold.

In the fall, I spread the humus over my garden, then collected manure from our horses and sheep, mixed it into the humus, and spread the rich fertilizer evenly over the land I had been given. The height of the plot rose nearly six inches, dwarfing the adjacent patch. My father hired a neighbor to plow and harrow both vegetable gardens.

The old farmhouse. Courtesy of Paul Schubert.

I planned my garden as carefully as a general plans an invasion. I listed my requirements for seeds and determined how to lay out my rows and what vegetables to plant.

As soon as the snows melted, I worked in my garden before and after school every day, raking the topsoil into finer and finer particles. As the weather warmed, I spent countless happy hours in the nearby general store, studying seed packets and placing the requisite coins onto the wooden counter. I talked about my plans with everyone who would listen.

Then, on one disastrous afternoon, my aspirations were shattered.

I arrived home from school to find my garden ringed with sticks anchoring long lines of twine. Someone had invaded and conquered my entire garden. I was stunned!

When I glimpsed my aunt working near the chicken coop, I ran to her and expressed my disbelief. “How could you do that to me?”

“It’s as much my garden as yours,” she said curtly.

My aunt’s plantings grew into a stunning display of vegetables, thanks to my nutrient-rich humus. The plot I was left with produced a meager, embarrassing harvest. For the sake of family harmony, no one confronted my traitorous aunt on my behalf.

A year later, in the midst of a particularly brutal winter, we moved off the little farm and away from Rudy’s family. Rudy and I pledged that nothing would break our relationship, and nothing did.

Years later, I realized that my aunt wrestled with a personality disorder. We watched from afar as she tragically damaged her own life and that of her family. I heard about her hellish childhood, which began to explain some of her issues.

So, I made an effort to remember how Tante Lottie could be the life of a party when she was a young mother. As the years passed, there was less and less to like about her, but in my memories, she rose to her best three times. I saw her save the life of a boy drowning in a lake one summer afternoon. I learned how she held her cool during a bank holdup, speaking calmly to the robbers. And the third memory was the most important. When I was a young seminarian, my father died on a visit to Germany. Without a word, Tante Lottie gave me a check for $2,000, so I could fly to Germany and bring home my grieving mother and my father’s remains.

Forgiveness is a harvest far more valuable than anything I could have raised in my beautiful garden plot. I see all the wonderful things her son and his family have accomplished, and I thank God for redeeming Tante Lottie’s memory.

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