She wore a man’ s castoff button down shirt, white with long sleeves to shield her from the sun, from the green sap that oozed from the wounds created when she snapped suckers emerging between stems and leafy branches. She was ten years old, working whole hot blazing days in the tomato ffelds,working too hard, too long, losing too much of her childhood to the flat Illinois fields of her uncle’s farm. She was one of thousands of children who knew such labor In the Great Depression, children who have etched indelible images in our cultural memory.
I think of my mother’s stories about growing up as a farmer’s daughter’s whenever I sucker tomatoes. I envision the welts that came up on her arms in spite of the long sleeves, a common reaction to the solanoid in the chartreuse sap. But I also remember my mother’s stories about happy days camping by the creek during berry picking season, about the pet chicken she kept in a hollow log in thewoods, about the wind in her hair joy of clinging to the Back of her uncle’s milk truck then leaping off to run the glass milk bottles to the doors of customers. My mom loved to run.
When I call my mom a farmer’s daughter, you have to picture my grandmother as the farmer. A single mother, she ran a mixed farm with a successful honey business but gave up full time farming once her eight children were grown. She flew east to our suburban home every winter, but, come spring, she began to talk about her garden with a purposeful tone that meant all my begging for her to stay would be futile. Thus, even though I would never wander through her lettuce patch, my grandmothers Illinois garden taught me the spring imperative that summons all lovers of the soil.
It is not surprising that, as an adult, my mom did not grow vegetables, Tomato rashes and sunburns haunted her. Yet elements of of her rural childhood survived incongruously in a neighborhood where people bought everything and made or grew nothing. She sewed her own dresses and taught me to sew mine. She baked bread from scratch, kneading dough on the flour dusted formica table. She also hunted and had keen eye for road kill. I suppose the neighbors were not horrified when they walked in to find my mom with flour dusted hands or sitting at the sewing machine with pins in her mouth. But I suspect that a dead pheasant gutted and defeathered on bloody newspapers spread over the kitchen floor was a shock to the ladies in their starched shirtwaist dresses and their freshly permed hair. In spite of her lack of a vegetable garden, my mother taught me about the satisfaction ( and the potential shock value) that comes with self sufficiency.
My mother, like many farm kids in her generation, devoted too much of her childhood to field work. In contrast, I wish I had picked my first ripe tomato as a child. Somewhere between my mothers agricultural experience and mine there is the illusive balance that I seek for my students as a gardening teacher.
Recently, a third grade class sat on a circle of stumps near the swing set and the school garden. We were wrapping up an hour session when we had planted peas, prepared soil, watered , weeded and poured food scraps into our rotating composter. I asked the class to share thoughts about our time in the garden. They spoke about finding earthworms and their interest in the bright white root threads of weedy clumps of grass. Someone announced that the compost, the “really …eeew…gross looking compost”, is a steaming 140 degrees.
Conversations with groups of children often segue fluidly from the gross to the sublime. We were still imagining the oatmeal sloshing in the compost buckets when a boy sitting near the swings began to speak with the far off look in his eyes that hints at an opening to the profound.
“When I’m in the garden” he said slowly, in a curious tone that said he was attempting to fathom his own observation, “it may actually be louder than inside, but somehow…it always seems quiet.”Hearing this, children became quiet enough to hear the gentle murmuring of the wind.
Finding peace in the garden had not been on my list of objectives that day, but perhaps that moment in communion with the wind was sign that we were indeed finding the balance.