Updated: Jan 3
I have a ritual that I do every summer during the month of June. I enjoy visiting local markets in search of sweet watermelons. My approach is similar to an inspector sizing up the watermelons to determine if they deserve my stamp of approval. I would use all kinds of made-up formulas to decide which one was sweet. My rule has always been, "If it ain't been in the dirt, I don't want it." Most of the time, no matter what method I used, I would always be disappointed.
It turns out that I wasn't the only one selecting watermelons using a fictitious formula in the produce section. I watched shoppers use all kinds of methods to pick the right watermelon. I saw people rolling and rubbing watermelons. I saw people staring intently at the watermelons like they had x-ray vision. They were thumping them and bending their heads down to listen to them as if a secret Morse code was saying, "Thou shalt choose me!" I saw people picking up watermelons and looking at their bottoms, searching for the ground spot. People were trying all kinds of hocus-pocus methods to pick the perfect watermelon that would have made even Harry Potter jealous. The younger generation has no use for these watermelon-picking rituals. As we struggled to decide which watermelon to buy, they had already selected their watermelons and were heading to the cash register.
I remember hearing an old trick for picking watermelons by a beloved man whose method has been proven over the years. His formula does not come from magic but rather from a lived experience. His hands have held the imprint and the history of my ancestors who were bonded to the soil for many generations. That man is my grandfather, the late Emerson Grigley, whom we affectionately call Big Daddy. Big Daddy's garden was filled with rows and rows of watermelons, vegetables, and stories.
Big Daddy was a school custodian. He wore a brown khaki uniform to work every day. In fact, this is the only thing I remember seeing him wear when I was a little girl. That uniform was always pressed to the hilt! I never saw a wrinkle in it! He always had what looked like a thousand keys dangling on his belt loop. Big Daddy was a quiet man who worked hard to provide for his family. During the day, my grandfather spent his hours taking care of the facilities at West Clayton Elementary School in Georgia. When he got home from work, he went straight to his garden with his work clothes still on. It was humid and hot in those days, but my grandfather would be fully clothed in his khaki uniform without breaking a sweat! My grandparents didn't feel heat. They would have those vintage heaters up so high and then ask if we were hot. Of course, we would always lie and say no as sweat dripped down the side of our faces. It was so much fun back then. These are the memories I have of Big Daddy's garden.
Big Daddy's garden was on a few acres of land on the side of his house in Forest Park, Georgia. There was a dirt path that I used to walk down to get to it. I loved those days. I used to walk down that path barefoot without any fear of snakes or wild animals coming after me. I felt a natural affinity with the land in Big Daddy's garden. As I walked down the dirt pathway as a little girl, I could see glimpses of my grandfather through the tall grass. He was looking at the watermelons. He loved growing watermelons. It was one of his best crops. The watermelons he grew were big and long. Nowadays, watermelons are small and rarely sweet! The watermelons that Big Daddy grew were so large that they looked like dinosaur eggs. Of course, I was young at the time, and that's what I had imagined them to be because they were so big. As I walked up to him in the garden, he smiled. Big Daddy had a special nickname for me. He called me Candy. I liked the name because it made me feel sweet, no pun intended.
As I came around the corner, he asked, "Candy, what you doing out here? Ain't got no shoes on!" I hated wearing shoes. I still walk around the house barefoot to this day. I feel like I can't breathe even when I have socks on my feet. Isn't that crazy? Big Daddy didn't seem to mind my wiggling toes. He used it as an opportunity to teach me how to pick a good watermelon. As my toes stuck into the red Georgia clay, I watched Big Daddy pick some watermelons and leave others. Whenever he picked a watermelon, he examined every inch of it and then thumped it. As he spoke, I listened carefully. He said, "Candy, when you thump a watermelon, and it sounds hollow, it's ready."
I remember trying to mimic him by thumping one of the watermelons and holding my ear to it, waiting to hear something. I was grinning from ear to ear, waiting for something magical to happen. I was too young to know what "hollow" meant, but I was willing to follow Big Daddy’s advice. Despite all my thumping, I didn't hear a thing. Big Daddy smiled. While I don't recall hearing anything, I certainly remember tasting it.
There was a ceremony associated with the cutting of the watermelon. Everybody would gather around the small table in the kitchen to watch him cut the watermelon. Big Daddy would stick a big knife in the middle and work his way down. Once he reached the end of the watermelon, he opened it. You could hear the crack when he split it open. It was red and juicy inside. He saved the rinds to feed to the hogs in the backyard pen. We had the best time eating those sweet watermelons from the garden.
My brother recalls the same fond memories in the garden. He remembers seeing Big Daddy standing in the garden among snap peas, corn, lettuce, collards, and watermelons. Big Daddy used to give him the same advice for picking a ripe watermelon. My brother remembers him bending down and thumping the watermelons too. My brother and I enjoyed spending time with Big Daddy in the garden. It was a master class of agricultural knowledge and history that will remain with us forever.