It never occurred to me how important the simple things in life were until I met Sookie Jensen. It was springtime, early Saturday morning, and I had just stepped into the local hardware store for a forty pound bag of water softener salt when a sheet of notebook paper on the bulletin board caught my attention. It read, “Handyman available. Experienced. Call…”and it gave the number. It got me thinking. I wonder if he could help with my gardening project?
For the last two years I’d been on a grow your own kick. I’d tried planting tomatoes and green beans with a pathetic amount of success. Bug ridden, spindly plants lacking in anything worth eating had been the order of the day. Couple that with the fact that my efforts had become a source of ongoing amusement to my wife, well, let’s just say that the note had me intrigued. Up until then I’d been about ready to cancel the entire project and buy from the local farmer’s market. Now…maybe not.
I asked Jerry, the owner of Swanson’s Hardware, if he knew anything about the handyman.
“Oh, you mean Sookie? Well, he’s new in town, and he’s a character, that’s for sure.” He spent the next five minutes regaling me about the guy and may have gone on longer except Gwen Pickle, the president of the Long Lake Chamber of Commerce came in and needed a pane of class cut for a busted garage door window. He went to help her leaving me with this final observation, “He seems harmless enough.”
I paid for my salt and left, thinking that, what the hell, why not take a chance on him? Jerry had told me that he was an old guy who lived by himself in Squire Wood, an ancient apartment building outside of town near the Lucy Line, a biking and hiking trail that stretched from Minneapolis, twenty miles to the east, all the way to Winsted, forty miles to the west. It was putting mildly to say that Squire Wood looked less like a rundown apartment building and more like a dilapidated, two-story crack house. It was a place most reasonable people steered clear of, myself included, but I guess the rent was cheap.
My interest in Sookie got the better of me, though. My wife Rita and I worked long hours; she, as an administrator for a law firm in town, and me in information systems for a manufacturing company in Minneapolis. I commuted back and forth, and the drive sometimes took as much as an hour each way. Our kids were eight, ten, twelve and fourteen. They played sports, did band, debate, science club and the school newsletter after school, so we had weekly driving schedules and pickup times posted on a white board in the kitchen just to keep everything straight. In short, we had a busy life, and free time was at a premium if it even existed at all. Given all of that, I still felt compelled to try to plant a vegetable garden even after two years of failure. You know the old saying, “Third one’s the charm.” Maybe this Sookie character would bring me good luck.
When I got home and told Rita about my plan she just laughed, “Go ahead Shawn, knock yourself out. Me? I’m not going to hold my breath.” Then she pointed at the door, “Now, get going. The girls have soccer practice in…” she glanced at the white board, “five minutes ago, so go. Now.”
I went. I loaded ten year old Lisa and twelve year old Emma into the Prius and took off, thinking that maybe trying to grow vegetables again was going to be too much to ask.
I dropped the kids at practice and hung around to watch, thinking about cancelling the whole gardening thing. Then I chastised myself. No way. Both Rita and I were type A personalities. I liked to push myself and was even now training for a local triathlon, so I took it as a challenge to prove to both myself and my wife that I really could plant and grow a successful garden.
Let me explain: Rita and I had a good marriage, but it wasn’t uncommon for her to question how handy I was around our home. I’ll admit that I wasn’t the best when it came to household maintenance, but I tried. For some reason, with this gardening project, I felt like I had something to prove to her. I decided that I was more than willing to give the grow your own idea one more chance. When I got back from soccer practice, I called Sookie.
It didn’t start off well. I could tell he picked up the phone, but he said nothing by way of a greeting. After nearly half a minute of silence during which I became increasingly uncomfortable, I said, “Hi. Hello there. Anybody home? I’m calling about the notice you posted in the hardware store. About you being a handyman? I could use some help with my garden. Do you do any gardening?”
Still silence. Well, this is ridiculous, I was thinking to myself. I was about to hang up when a voice said, “Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there? I can’t hear too well with these damn hearing aids.”
I don’t why, but I laughed out loud, suddenly finding the whole situation amusing. I found out later that I was calling on his landline. He could see the light blinking indicating he had a call, he just couldn’t hear anything. It turned out he needed new batteries for both his hearing aids. Something I ended up buying for him later on.
I yelled, “I’m calling about your ad in the hardware store.”
Man, this was going nowhere fast. I yelled even louder and he yelled at me and we yelled at each other for a couple of minutes before finally agreeing to met in the hardware store parking lot at noon the next day, Sunday, which we did.
Let me tell you, that first meeting started off a little rocky, but once I purchased a couple of hearing aid batteries for him, things picked up considerably. I told him about my problems with my garden. He listened without saying a word, nodding occasionally. When I was finished I asked, “Would you care to have a look?”
“Sure, young man,” he grinned, “I’ve got nothing but time. Let’s go have a look.”
He was short and wiry and wore bib overalls and a straw hat. He had a long, white, beard and moustache, bright blue eyes and surprisingly white straight, teeth. He looked kind of like I always imagined Rip Van Winkle would have looked like. Appearance notwithstanding, he was a nice man and very soft-spoken. But, like Jerry’d said at the hardware store, he was also a bit of a character. For instance, he didn’t drive a car. “Don’t care for them at all,” he said that first meeting when I looked askance at his mode of transportation. He had ridden an old three speed bicycle to the hardware store. “They’re bad for the environment.” He looked at my Prius, my yuppie nod to being environmentally aware, and just smirked, being polite enough not to add anything by way of comment.
I don’t know, there was something about him that I liked. Maybe the fact that he and I were so different had something to do with it. I drove him to my house to see the garden. Rita and I lived on a three acre lot carved out of the forests and fields of western Hennepin county. We had it built to spec eighteen years ago. It’s huge, one of those McMansions everyone is complaining about these days. Back then it wasn’t a big deal. Now a days, well, let’s just say we’re a little embarrassed by our home’s immense size and are trying to do our part by being as environmentally responsible as possible. Our lawn service only uses eco-friendly fertilizer and we recycle. That’s all good, right?
As we drove up to look at my poor excuse for a garden (with Sookies’ bike in the back), my oldest, fourteen year old Jared, ran out, “Dad, can you take me to baseball practice? Mom’s been trying to get a hold of you.”
I checked my phone. Opps. I had a message and about five texts. Damn. In the doghouse again. “Sure, I said, hop in.”
“I turned to Sookie, “You don’t mind?”
“Nope, not in the least,” he smiled, watching as Jared got in the backseat.”What’s your name, young man?”
Jared snapped his seat belt, introduced himself and he and Sookie shook hands. I was glad to see my son was being as polite as we’d raised him to be.
I turned to him, “Where’s practice?”
“Up at school.”
“What position do you play?” Sookie asked. And from that point on they began talking about baseball, of which Sookie knew a surprising amount, which led talk of school, which led to a discussion about what Jared wanted to do with his life, which led to me finding out that my kind hearted son wanted to become a veterinarian. I’d had no idea.
Sookie was like that. He looked odd, weird even, and lived by himself in a rundown apartment building, but he was interested in other people, intelligent, and, as I was about to find out, knew his way around a vegetable garden. After we dropped Jared off at his practice field we went back to my house. If he was impressed by my property with its nicely manicured lawn and strategically planted shrubs and trees like I thought he might be (most people were), I was to be proven wrong. What he cared about first and foremost was my garden.
“Let’s see what you’ve got here, young man,” he said, as I led him around to the backyard. He didn’t even glance at the kidney shaped swimming pool and big flagstone patio. Instead, he focused on the eyesore of my pathetic plot of dirt I called a garden and took over.
One of the things he did during that first week, after he ordered and spread a couple of yards of manure and compost, was to get the kids involved. It didn’t take much. Right off the bat they were interested in this strange looking man working in the backyard, and they took to wandering down to watch. My youngest, eight year old Becky, was the first one to start spending time with him, weeding and getting her hands dirty planting and helping out with whatever needed to be done. On Friday of the first week after Sookie had gone home for the day, she looked concerned, “Is Sookie ever coming back?” she asked, her little forehead furled in concern.
“Do you like him?” I asked, begging the question and slightly distracted since I was getting ready to go for a bicycle training ride for the triathlon.
“Yes. He’s very nice,” she said, pausing, and then adding, “And he’s really funny,” with the emphasis on really. It was pretty cute.
By the next week, she had recruited her soccer playing sisters, Lisa and Emma, and brother Jared to help out. Soon thereafter school ended, summer break began, and we had the kids enrolled in day camp, golf, tennis and horseback riding lessons, soccer camp and other activities, wanting to keep them occupied during the day. Completely unexpected, though, what they liked most was coming home from their planned activities and helping Sookie in the garden. They not only planted rows of carrots, lettuce and bush beans, but they also helped him dig out a new bed for squash and pumpkins. They planted rhubarb, three different kinds of peppers and five different kinds of tomatoes. They even planted some potatoes. They also outlined the entire garden space in marigolds to, as Becky told me seriously, “Keep the critters away.” As the garden grew in size, they weeded and watered and helped with the hoeing, often working into the evening until the sun started to go down. It was fun to see. In fact, it became a family affair, of sorts, for the kids. The only thing missing were the parents.
In the beginning, I couldn’t be bothered. Even though I’d hired Sookie, I didn’t see him much because I was busy full-time with my job. Any free time I had was spent training for the Gear West Triathlon coming up later that fall. I only talked to him occasionally about the garden and whether or not he needed supplies and what to maybe plant next – that kind of thing. After the kids became so involved, though, I became curious as to what was drawing their attention, so I started going down after work to be with them and see what they were doing. Often Sookie had gone home by then, but the kids would always be excited to see me, pointing out what they had planted and how the vegetables were coming along.
Once little Becky took me by the hand and said, “Look it, Daddy. Look at the all pretty tomatoes. Don’t they look delectable.”
Obviously it was a word she’d learned from Sookie and it was incredibly sweet, not only her expanding vocabulary, but also her attitude and enthusiasm. I enjoyed seeing my kids not only having fun, but learning something useful: the art of gardening and how to grow things. I started working out less after work and coming down more often to the garden to be with my children. I even started to do some weeding and hoeing myself, getting my hands in the soil and my knees dirty. It was hard work, but it dawned on me after a few weeks how much fun it was, especially being around my children in that sort of unstructured time and seeing them so relaxed and happy. My enthusiasm for the triathlon waned until by summer’s end I’d quit training for it altogether.
In early August, Rita pulled me aside and said, “Say, Shawn, did you know Sookie used to teach Physics at the University of Minnesota?”
Ah, no. I’d never talked to him about his past at all, but Rita had always been a straight shooter. She told me that one day she’d just up and asked about his background and he obligingly told her.
“Yeah, I guess he’s even written a few books. Science related stuff.”
“I had no idea.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty amazing.”
By then Sookie had been working for us for nearly three months. Who’d have thought it? Certainly not me.
It had taken her a while to gain his trust, though. At first it was a direct order for me to, “Just make sure you watch him around the kids, Shawn. And for god’s sake, make sure he doesn’t do anything weird.”
Later, though, after she’d gotten to know him a little better she told me, “You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone like him.” And that was true, neither of us had.
My wife and I were both born of privilege and didn’t have to want for anything. We were brought up in affluence and if we liked our little world out west of Minneapolis, away from the congestion and noise of the inner city, well that was just what we were used to.
Sookie was different by a long shot, and the more we found out about him, the more interesting he became. He had been brought up on a soybean farm in Aitkin county in north central Minnesota. He had served as a medic in Vietnam. His wife died giving birth to their third child, and, although he’d raised his kids by himself, all three had moved west once they’d grown and he didn’t see them very often. He was working on new book about sustainable living. And he valued his privacy so much that he had yet to make an offer for us to come and visit him in his apartment.
He worked in the garden almost every day, riding over on his bicycle and doing whatever chores needed to be done. A few weeks after he started with us he took stock of our yard and suggested that, along with maintaining the garden, he could also keep the grass cut and the shrubs and trees trimmed. I took a chance and let the lawn service go and never regretted it. Sookie found an old Toro horizontal blade mower, the kind you might see on a golf course, on Craig’s List for me to buy. He fixed it up and had it running like a clock in no time. The lawn never looked better.
But it was more than the cosmetic appearance of our yard that he impacted. Over the summer Sookie became an integral part of our family. We got in the habit of inviting him for dinner on Sunday night, the only day of the week it seemed we had everyone home at the same time. We all enjoyed having him around; the kids because not only did he make them laugh, but because they learned so much from him. Rita and I…? Well, I guess it was the same for us, too.
For me, though, it became more than gardening and lawn mowing, it was him as a person. “Shawn,” he told me early on, “You know, you’ve got a good thing going here. A nice home, a great family, a good job. But let me ask you this, are you happy?”
I remember laughing at him, “Sure, I’m happy. You just said it yourself; nice home, great family, good job. Who wouldn’t be?”
“Yes, but are you?” His gaze intensified as he bored into me with piercing eyes. I swear sometimes he seemed to see into the depths of my soul. It was disconcerting, but I stayed true to my statement. “Of course I am. Who wouldn’t be?” I told him, somewhat petulantly. But as I turned abruptly and walked back to the house, I had to admit that he made me wonder, “Am I really?”
Something Sookie said to me that first time I met with him in the hardware store parking lot stuck with me; his statement of, “Young man, I’ve got nothing but time.”
I thought about it a lot that summer and along about Labor Day I began to get an inkling of what he was getting at. He meant that it’s up to you to make the most of your life. You need to concentrate on what’s really important before it’s too late and you run out of time to do what really matters to you.
With that in mind, by the end of the summer I had begun to cut back on my hours at work, and Rita had done the same at her job. And, more to the point, we both had started to make sure to spend more time with our kids. Our lives began to refocus, not so much around working and making money, although that’s certainly part of what we did, but with prioritizing what was important to the both of us; number one being Rita and I and our relationship with each other, and, two, just as important, both of us spending more quality time with our kids. For both of us it felt like the right thing to do.
Rita’s birthday was the day before Halloween, and we usually celebrated the two together. This year was no different. We planned a big party with a bunch of our friends, costumes, scary decorations that the kids were in charge of – the whole bit. The evening before the event Sookie unexpectedly showed up with a surprise.
“Here,” he said, handing Rita a gift wrapped box, “This is a little something for you.”
I think Rita blushed for the first time in years. “Why thank you, Sookie. That’s very thoughtful.”
The kids gathered around, excited up to see what he’d come up with. As she unwrapped the paper and opened the box, he said, “I baked it for you for your birthday. It’s from your garden.” She lifted out a beautiful pie. “It’s rhubarb and strawberry,” he grinned and turned to the four kids, “You guys should be proud, you grew the rhubarb.” His grin turned to a big smile and he enveloped them all in a massive hug. Then Rita joined them.
What an unexpectedly thoughtful gesture! It was right then that I realized Sookie being part of our family was as important to him as he was to us. I think I had a tear in my eye as I hugged him and said, “Thanks for everything.”
“My pleasure,” he said, his voice cracking. It was a pretty emotional moment for us all.
During the winter we didn’t hear from him. At the end of the growing season he’d told us he was renting a car and going on an extended diving trip out west to visit his three kids and their families, and he didn’t know when he’d be back. Rita and I both organized our work schedules so at least one of us could be with our children after they got home from school. We even seriously started talking about selling our house, downsizing, and moving to the nearby small town of Long Lake where they had some nice bungalows with yards that weren’t huge, but were big enough for a good sized garden. Our kids all have assured us they wouldn’t mind the move at all. Our family has gotten closer, that’s for sure.
On a snowy Saturday evening in the middle of January, Jared and I built a fire in the fireplace, Rita and Becky made some popcorn and Lisa and Emma set up our favorite board game, Monopoly, on a card table in the family room. As we played, talk turned to the garden. Becky asked, “Is Sookie coming back to work with us next year? I really want to see him again.”
It was almost as if he heard us talking about him, because at that exact moment my phone rang. I took the call in the next room and, what a pleasant surprise, it was Sookie. He was calling to let us know he was back in town. We talked for a long time, mostly about the upcoming year and what we might possibly be growing in the garden. He didn’t even ask if we wanted him back, just implied that he would be, almost like he was part of the family, which, in a way, he was.
After we hung up, I went back to the family room with its mostly eaten bowl of popcorn, cheerful fireplace fire and friendly board game and said, “Good news! Sookie’s back in town, and he’s looking forward to coming back to work in the garden this year.” Everyone, my wife included, cheered.
I can’t really say how this story is going to end. Right now it seems we’ve adopted this kind and gentle man who is so much more than just a gardener. Who knows what this year will bring? Rita and I are going to try to be the best parents we can be. We might downsize and move. We want to spend as much time with our kids as we can because we know eventually they will outgrow being around us and move on with their lives. I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s something to shoot for.
And that thing about time? It’s all about how you use it. I can’t recall my family ever being happier, even more so when we think about this upcoming spring and the beginning of planting season, because we all agree, working in the garden with Sookie, well, that’s something we’ll all make time for.