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The legend of Big Tom’s Toes

My dad, the late, great Burton Goff, loved to work in his garden. And although not a worrywart by nature, Daddy fretted over the health of his plants. He worried that the blight would afflict his tomatoes, that bugs would ruin his potatoes, that birds would eat his berries, and that deer would trample and/or feast on crops in general.

In an effort to be proactive, Daddy sought advice on how to combat obstacles to a bountiful crop. In the last year or so of his life, one gardening issue in particular vexed him so that he contacted the extension office. I can still see him sitting in his recliner, poring over papers.

“What are you reading?” asked I.

“It’s from that professor,” he explained.

Thinking that Daddy had withheld from me his decision to continue his education, I asked, “What professor?”

He then explained that the extension office had sought counsel from a University of Kentucky professor on his behalf. He seemed pleased with the response, but I must admit that I can’t remember if we ever again discussed this topic.

Nonetheless, Daddy wasn’t afraid to experiment with different gardening techniques. He surrounded his beans in bright orange plastic fencing that could be seen from space because someone told him that would deter critters. That’s also why I passed along bags of used kitty litter to him and why he draped tape from cassettes amongst his plants.

Whatever he did worked. None of us ever went hungry. Indeed, we enjoyed our share of, in his words, “garden suppers.”

As much as I might want to believe it, though, Daddy wasn’t perfect. Indeed, he didn’t have much luck with his “cabbages.” But he always raised such a bounty of corn, potatoes and tomatoes that he had to give away produce.

And after all these years, I think we’ve discovered the secret to his success. It wasn’t his use of “Miracle Growth” or his dedication to hoeing. It was his seed collection.

Whilst going through a deep freezer in Daddy’s old work building, my sister, Pam, located enough tomato seeds to yield plants for decades. We had known for some time that Daddy stored seeds in the freezer. In fact, that’s where we found the peaches and cream corn seed that produced a harvest the year after his death. But we hadn’t paid that much attention to the oodles of seed saved in and on such miscellaneous containers as plastic freezer boxes, baby food jars and paper towels.

That’s right. He affixed tomato seeds to paper towels.

Who knows how many years those seeds have managed to remain stuck to paper towels. Who knows how long they’ve rested underneath the description, “Big Tom’s Toes.”

Although I am well-versed in Daddy’s unique vocabulary, this description stumped me. At first, I thought it might refer to Daddy’s great-grandfather, Tom Collins. But I had never heard the man referred to as “big Tom.” What’s more, Daddy wouldn’t have preserved his grandpa’s toes. Unlike at least one of his children, Daddy wasn’t morbid.

Before I could spend too much time trying to translate the sentence, Pam explained that it meant tommy toes. (For those of you not fortunate enough to have grown up in a holler, tommy toes are also known as cherry tomatoes.)

As a writer, I felt proud that Daddy had inserted the apostrophe in the right place. More than that, though, I felt happy to see his handwriting again. I imagined him placing the moist seeds on the paper towels and then rummaging through drawers until he found a marker. As he spelled out “Big Tom’s Toes,” he probably thought he would plant those seeds in the soil of the land that his family has owned for more than 200 years. If not the next spring, then another one. They wouldn’t go to waste.

Now that Big Tom’s Toes have been located, something tells me they’ll be put to excellent use.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

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