Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My Farming Influences

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, but spent my summers with my great grandmother in Bolt , W. Virginia. Bolt was a tiny "unincorporated" town in Raleigh County. "Myrt" raised my mother after my grandmother (Myrt's dauther)died of tuberculosis at the age of 33. It was a study in simple living. Church, family and community were the focus of the day. Nobody worried about what college to go to or what career to persue because it was already decided for yout. You grew up, married your childhood sweetheart, lived in a mobile home and either made a welcoming home for a growing family or worked in the coal mine.
. My average summer day would entail Myrt, my mother and I walking a dirt road a short way to Aunt Elsie's farm, Elsie was Myrt's sister. It was a picturesque place where lowing cows greeted you as you made your way down the road toward the farm. The smell of the Appalachian mountains in the spring and summer is indescribable. It is fresh, and intoxicating, tinged with the fragrant perfume of wild rhododendron and queen Anne's lace.
Once on the farm, we would find Elsie sitting in her cozy kitchen with a wooden churn between her legs, beating milk into butter . She would hold an engaging conversation to the three of us without missing a beat. Her arms were strong and she would churn the milk effortlessly. I remember thinking they looked a lot like my dad's. It wouldn't be until I was older and actually churned some milk that I realized how difficult and tiring the chore could be.
Covering ever flat surface of her farmhouse kitchen were endless canning jars filled with tomatoes, beans, peaches, beets, and more from the summer before. This was what was going to sustain Elsie and her husband, Miner, for the next year. She was a stereotypical strong farm woman. I admired her .
We would make our way into Elsie's kitchen garden where Myrt her own section. My mother and I would help her harvest her vegetables such as beans , corn and tomatoes. We'd each don a wide brimmed sunhat to keep away the sun's rays off the back of our necks. Bent over in rows, with harvesting trugs at our feet, we probably resembled share croppers or plantation workers from a bygone era.
Back at Myrt's we would begin the daily ritual of preparing a meal based on what we harvested from the garden that day. Green beans, slow-cooked all day in a bath of water and pork fat was the centerpiece of the meal supplemented by some home baked bread, slices of juicy tomatoes, pickles, served with a small serving of either chicken or ham. If anyone could bottle the image of contentedness, security and love, this is what it would look like.
Once back in Michigan, my mother would tend to our backyard garden similarly to the way Myrt tended hers. Beans and tomatoes were always the trusty members of the plot but some "exotics" too, such zucchini and leaf lettuce. Ingrained in me was the comfort of the garden that the first thing I did when I came home from college in the later part of the harvesting season, was to make myself a sandwich of fresh sliced tomatoes with Miracle Whip, leaf lettuce and white bread. The hothouse tomatoes of the university cafeteria just couldn't compete with those of our garden
Once I became a mother, it was important for me to carry on this love of the garden to my children. I would plant fun, living play structures, such as sunflower houses: sunflowers, grown with pole beans which provided a living play structure. Neighbor children would engage in endless hours of imaginary play involving the sunflower houses. Additonally, we would also have a few rows of tomatoes and cucumbers as well as zucchini that sometimes, in neglect, grew to the size of baseball bats much to the delilight of my children who would find ways to smash the oversized squash on various surfaces or engage in mock sword fights .
Hopefully, my children will retain those memories of playing, working and eating the garden as warm and sensory-filled. If they grow up to be gardeners too, then I guess, I have done my job as a parent.

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