Today, as the skin of the cooked beetroot slipped off easily under the gentle pressure of my fingers, I am taken back to the moment my hands first performed that satisfying act. I was four and three hours earlier, had helped my mother lift the raw beetroot from my grandmother’s garden.

Back then, responding to a request for help, always resulted in enlightenment and delight.

***

“Just press slightly and push, Ronald.” I do as she bids. The lackluster skin sloughs off to reveal the glossy globe inside, leave my fingers pink and release the warm odour of the earth that nourished it.

Instinctively, my heart swells as this tiny miracle unfolds.

***

That spring, we’d dug and watched earthworms grow and diminish as they sought escape.

“If the spade cuts them in half, they mend and grow into two worms.” Comforting words.

We’d broken clods, raked the bed, opened a drill and planted the seeds separately. We’d watched them poke through and grow. We’d thinned so that the distance between plants was the desired diameter of the beetroot. Later, we’d ‘lifted’. We always ‘lifted’ turnips and potatoes, parsnips and beets. Corn was ‘harvested’ and ‘corn’ for us meant barley, oats, and wheat. Berries we ‘picked’.

***

Yesterday, as the skin of the cooled, cooked beetroot slipped off easily under the gentle pressure of my fingers, it surprised me how few of the skills I use these days ever made it onto my curriculum vitae so necessary for so many years for an interview or a respectful introduction at a conference.

Now well retired, so much of what I do and COVID encourages, is concentrated into smaller spaces. Much of what is now most valuable, I learned before I went to school, or university, or took professional development to ‘keep current’.

Enjoy the song of the morning birds, pick the first rhubarb so carefully as to separate the stalk from the sheath, prepare and plant a garden, thin a row of pale lettuce, lift new potatoes; drop in on an elderly neighbour, call an old friend in a timely fashion before loneliness can set in; send an unexpected greeting; share spontaneous baking with she for whom the gesture is a gift; offer a helping hand.

Today — and the thought surprises me — my ‘short bio’ might honestly read: “The most important things in life, Ronald learned from his mother before starting school at the age of five.”

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