He Grew Heirlooms -- Before They Were "Heirlooms."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I'm a little sad tonight. I hope you'll bear with me. I'm just a little melancholy. I could not let this moment pass without telling you about a very important influence in not just my life -- but the creation of the blog that is Sacramento Vegetable Gardening.

The blog -- of course -- serves as an inspiration to my wife that is all things Venus. But the deep love and connection to all things dirt came much earlier. In fact -- it may have come from the man pictured to your right.

His name is Francis Doran. The woman to his left is his daughter -- Karen Doran. Although the name on this blog that I use is "Bill Bird," my true name (formal name) is William Doran Bird. The man to the right? He is my Uncle Francis. His daughter is my Cousin Karen.

Uncle Francis passed away yesterday. He was almost 92 years old. He lived a long and fruitful life, and yes, he's part of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation."

I knew this was coming. We all knew really. Family wondered at times how on God's Green Earth wondered how this man walked and talked. His arteries were so blocked up with crud they could have served as sidewalks on a city street. San Francisco's finest Cardiologists ran in terror when they saw his Angiogram images. Surgery was out of the question for a man his age.

But Francis surprised them. He surprised all of us. Somehow -- he perservered. Somehow -- he outlived almost everyone in my mother's family. My mother -- the youngest of the bunch -- passed away nearly 20 years ago. Her older brother kept right on going.

But -- yesterday -- January 6th, 2010 -- his time was suddenly up. He was discovered in his favorite chair in his Belmont office home. No hint of pain. No hint of stress. When he closed his eyes that night -- his time here came to an end.

And what a wonderful and interesting time it was. Uncle Francis was an interesting man. He was the hit of any party. Francis was "Green" long before the term meant anything other than a color in a set of Crayola crayons. Francis -- a hero in the fight against Imperial Japan -- was a man of peace. In fact -- he's the only man I know of who staged an official protest against "the war."

Not the Vietnam War. No -- World War II. I told you he was interesting.

Francis and his better half -- my Aunt Barbara -- officially celebrated 40 years of marital war -- err -- bliss three years ago where I snapped these pictures. What did Venus and I present as a "present" for a 40th wedding anniversary? The best gift my Uncle Francis could ever hope to receive (it's pictured below).

Most of all? Francis was a gardener. The old man did his level best to grow tomatoes in the most inhospitable place -- a canyon community called Belmont in the San Francisco Bay Area. Grow them he did -- despite bone-chilling temperatures during the summer -- howling winds at night and the worst weather conditions that Mother Nature could serve up.

But Francis perservered. So did his tomatoes. If they didn't get enough sun in the backyard -- he would build a planter box on a porch to remedy that problem. Too cold at night? Francis would build boxes next to the house so his tomato plants could get optimum heat. Heirloom tomatoes? Francis was growing heirloom tomatoes when heirlooms were labled as the "new offering" from Burpee or one of a million gardening catalogs littered about the Belmont home.

Just how serious was Uncle Francis when it came to growing vegetables? How about this? After several unsuccessful attempts to grow one of his favorite garden veggies -- cucumbers of all things -- Francis set up his own, personal greenhouse in the backyard. And in that greenhouse -- Uncle Francis grew cucumbers -- cucumbers for every month of the year.

Year in and year out -- you could always count on the fact that you wouldn't be required to run off to the store to buy a cucumber. Francis would just walk downstairs -- walk outside and walk into the greenhouse. A few minutes later -- my smiling Uncle Francis would emerge with cucumber in hand -- and yet another salad disaster was averted.

So -- I knew that our gift to my Uncle Francis and Aunt Barbara during their 40th Wedding Anniversary would be well received. It was a cucumber. It wasn't just any cucumber -- but one of the largest Armenian cucumbers to come out of the garden during the 2006 growing season. Francis would later call our Sacramento home and question just what we had presented him with. He about keeled over right there and then when I informed him it was one of his favorite vegetables.

He always envied the garden heat that we enjoy in the San Joaquin Valley. But envy wasn't enough to drive him out of his always cool Bay Area location. He would get his revenge during the summer when he would call and ask how much our air conditioning bill was that month.

I'm happy now that the Cal-grad wife that is Venus got to meet my Uncle. Francis -- a 1943 graduate of Oregon University -- looked forward to her calls whenever the Bears met the Ducks in a Pac 10 football showdown. There were a few calls between the two during the past years -- each "apologizing in advance" for the football beatdown that was about to come.

For some strange reason -- I was thinking of my Uncle last Thanksgiving. We always went to his Belmont home to celebrate the holiday when I was a child. I hadn't thought about it for years and cannot understand why the memories were coming back so strongly last November.

Perhaps now I know. I put those thoughts into a form of an essay that I submitted to Chicken Soup for the Soul. I never did hear back from them. Perhaps they weren't ready for a story like this one. Perhaps they haven't decided. Perhaps the only person who will ever see it is me.

Goodbye Uncle Francis. Thank you for being the perfect Uncle any nephew could ever ask for. I will miss you.

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