Jonny McCambridge: Growing spuds – not quite a team effort

This story has been under composition in my mind for quite some time.

Wednesday, 4th August 2021, 6:15 am
One sifts for potatoes, while one watches

Several months, in fact. Right from the time my son and I planted the seed potatoes in bags of muck back in the early spring.

And the narrative I’ve been mentally polishing ever since then has always been much the same. A heart-warming tale of another adventure, another shared experience, which brings the two of us closer together. From planting and tending, through to excitedly digging the new spuds, picking them from the black soil like precious stones. My boy learning something about the sacred provenance of the food he eats. Another step in his journey, guided by me, towards enlightenment. The passing on of experience and wisdom from one generation to the next.

It’s a beautiful story. I would dearly love to have written it. But there’s one glaring problem. It’s a complete fantasy, riven with untruth from start to finish. Unfortunately, it just didn’t pan out that way.

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The real version is this. I thought it would be a valuable experience if my boy was to get some experience in growing some of the food that he ate. I mentioned the potato idea to him a few times, but it rarely seemed to break the surface of his notice.

I bought the planting bags, the seeds and dug up some soil and set it all up in a sunny spot in the back yard. I called for him to assist me, but he didn’t immediately move. I finally managed to secure about half of his attention by promising that we were going to grow chips. He stood miserably at the side of the grow bags while I tried without success to rouse some enthusiasm.

I showed him the seed potatoes and urged him to plant them deep in the bags of soil.

He didn’t want to.

‘It’s ok buddy, you don’t have to worry about getting your hands dirty.’

He gave me a look which seemed to suggest that his objection was based upon distaste and lack of interest, rather than any concerns over hygiene.

‘You do it daddy.’

I sighed. Eventually we reached a compromise that he would place the seeds on the top of the dirt and then I would push them down. He did a couple before he told me he was bored and then went back inside to his Nintendo Switch to play Minecraft while I completed the job.

As the weeks passed, I made sure the grow bags were properly watered every day and got plenty of sun. Occasionally I would mention their progress to my son, particularly when the leaves began to push out of the compost. He never asked about the potatoes once, even when the plants began to stretch high above the tops of the bags.

Eventually, I could wait no longer. I made a large fuss over the process of emptying the bags and sifting through the soil to find the potatoes. My son, perhaps in an effort to humour me, promised he would help.

Then I upturned the first bag, sending a number of bugs scurrying for cover. My son retreated a few steps. I began to break up the packed soil with my hands.

‘Come on buddy, let’s get stuck in.’

He didn’t move and looked at me with scepticism.

‘You do it daddy.’

So, I did, with him standing back and giving me directions when he spotted a pale potato.

In truth, the harvest in the first bag was miserable. I grabbed a couple of small potatoes and held them up towards my son hopefully. They were smaller than marbles. He looked unimpressed. I began to wonder if I should have waited for another month.

Then I went to fetch the second bag. When I returned my son was gone, back to his virtual world of games and impersonal connections.

I went on. The crop in the second bag was much better, with some largish potatoes which would not have looked out of place in a grocer’s shop. I scooped up a couple and went running into the house.

‘Look buddy! Look at these potatoes!’

He was sitting with his iPad on the sofa.

‘That’s great daddy,’ he said without looking up.

And there I was. Standing uselessly with a large potato in each hand and finally getting the point. My son is not interested. He will give me the minimal amount of his attention to allow me to take the photos, begin the process, gather enough material for me to write a story. But his heart is not in it.

I went back to my digging a little subdued and wounded. And as I filled the basin with grubby little spuds, I reasoned it out in my mind.

As a daddy, I want the right to choose what my son will be interested in, to be the guiding hand in his choices. At the root of it all I want him to be a reflection of me.

But he’s not me. He’s his own person and every day his choices take him in his own direction. I can’t live my own life again through my child and I shouldn’t try. Kids go their own way and can’t simply be moulded like clay.

I’ll always shake my head in despair at the computer games that absorb his attention, but I can’t compel him towards something else just because I think it is of more worth. That’s just how it is, and I have to accept it.

I’m sifting through the last bag and unearthing the final few potatoes. I’m covered in a fine film of sweat and there is mud on my shorts and under my fingernails. From a slow start the little basin is now almost full. It’s close to impressive.

My son surprises me by reappearing in the garden. He walks over and peers at the haul.

‘There’s a lot there now, isn’t there daddy?’

‘Yes buddy.’

‘And can we use them to make chips tonight?’

‘Yes, we can.’

‘And can we bring some down to show Granda?’

‘Of course.’

He pauses for a moment and looks again at the spuds.

‘I did really well with the potatoes, didn’t I daddy?’, he says.

‘You did buddy. You really did.’