When the weather threatened to freeze off our tomato plants last Saturday night, we took advantage of a slow day at home and went to the back yard around noon to grab the last of the red 'maters from the garden. Unlike the previous sweat-filled harvesting sessions, we were bundled up in warm jackets and hats at first before the sun broke and the heat of our efforts caused us to shed a layer.
Andy came out and helped, too, as my ability to bend and pick has greatly diminished as the months wear on. Ethan again showed laser beam dedication to the cause, easily picking his own weight in tomatoes before asking to go ride bike. Elly was a bit harder to keep focused and I finally had to give her a tangible goal of filling two grocery bags before she was excused to hop on her two-wheeler.
Before we were even half way through the rows (if you can even figure out where the rows are in the photo above), two neighborhood boys came zipping through the alley on their Razr scooters. I'd seen them before. In fact, a few weeks ago, I'd been out weeding while our kids played and they came by, asking if I had any jobs for them to do. I was amused as I had heard about this; people paying local kids to rake the leaves or mow the lawn for them. While our lawn really needed it, we didn't have petty cash budgeted for jobs we could do ourselves. I weighed the value of the work they could do verses our saving money, and in the end I was just too far outside my comfort zone to give them anything to do. As it was, they were happy to play with our kids in the yard while I worked, which benefited all. I have seen them around here and there since that day and each time the boys were very friendly and waved hello or asked what we were up to.
There are a lot of kids around our neighborhood, ranging in age from baby to teenagers. Most of them are pretty indifferent to our family and won't even acknowledge when our overly outgoing kids yell "Hello!" to them. There's a pack of them that hang out at the end of the alley on school nights, all sitting on bikes and chatting idly as the evening creeps in. We call them the Biker Gang and deem them about as harmless as the Apple Dumpling Gang. I'm not sure if these two boys are a part of that group, but of all the kids we've seen zoom past our backyard this summer, they have been the most polite.
I was pondering all of this when the boys stopped on the road and asked what we were up to. Smiling, I said, "What does it look like we're doing?"
"Harvesting tomatoes," said the brown haired boy.
"That's right!" said I.
"Can we help you!?" he asked with such fervor that I wasn't sure what to make of it.
I hesitated. "Well, we don't really have any money to pay you for your time–"
Brown Haired Boy responded before the words were out of my mouth. "That's ok! Just give us a bag and we'll help 'til you're done!"
"Wow, ok! And if your families like tomatoes, you can pick some to take home."
Brown Haired Boy dropped his scooter on the grass and his friend, Blonde Haired Boy did the same. Andy handed them some bags and they began grabbing beautiful ripe tomatoes and filling each respective bag until they had quite the haul. We asked them where they lived. Blonde Haired Boy lives on the very end of the alley, in the house closest to where Biker Gang congregates. Turns out, it's his family that has a small bike repair business in their garage and every time we walk past, someone is working on a bicycle with countless pieces of two-wheelers scattered about the garage floor. (that might explain Biker Gang a bit). Brown Haired Boy lives on the next parallel street to ours and is best friends with Blonde Haired Boy.
Finally I asked them their names. Brown Haired Boy turned out to be Austin. Blonde Haired Boy goes by Carter. Austin and Carter took their cache of tomatoes to Austin's house (down the block) to give to his mother. Andy and I kept picking, thinking that was the end of it.
We were very wrong, in a very blessed sort of way. Within minutes, we saw the boys walking back to our yard with a couple plastic bags bulging with produce. Behind them a woman just a bit older than us came with another bag. It was Carter's mother.
I was closest to the road as they approached and paused my picking to acknowledge her. She asked, "Do you like cabbage and carrots? We just harvested these from our garden and thought you might be able to use them, seeing as the boys told me you only grew tomatoes this year."
"A veggie exchange! How wonderful!" I exclaimed.
In fact, the bags were filled with squash, onions, beets, carrots and cabbage. What an incredible trade! They must have brought over three times as much as we gave them. Andy and I thanked her profusely while Austin and Carter began harvesting again. It was the first time we had met her and she and I talked about the gardening year and Carter's friendship with Austin. Soon she headed back home and the six of us continued to work in the garden.
Sooner than I thought, we had found every last ripe tomato. Because of the frost coming, we also picked any tomato that showed the least bit of ripening, including some that were by all accounts green, but yet had a shade of pink or orange on one side.
"Well, guys, I think we're done for today," Andy announced as we hauled our bags to the back of the house.
"Oh, do you have anything else we could do?" asked Austin. He is the more outgoing of the two.
"Actually, if you don't mind, it would help a lot if the tomatoes were sorted by ripeness, so we can process them before some go bad," I stated.
"OH YES! Please let us help sort the tomatoes!" both boys exclaimed. How could we resist that? Andy and the boys put all the harvest in one area of the lawn and began sorting by green, sort of ripe and super ripe. Below, you can see the group sorting together.
When the task was finished, they happily helped us haul the boxes and bags of produce up the stairs into our newly cleaned out back pantry. We're not really sure what the room is supposed to be. It shoots off our kitchen with a single door and is about four feet deep by fourteen feet long. There is a makeshift door to the backyard without a handle on the outside. The whole thing looks like someone put an afterthought into it and just tacked it to the back of the house. It looks a lot like an enclosed porch with very few windows. A few weeks ago, Andy cleaned it out from top to bottom and made it into a very useful storage space for our food, cleaning supplies and other odds and ends. This is where we'll be cold storing a lot of our winter produce as it keeps a solid temp of 40˚– 50˚. Below, just some of the produce Carter's family shared with us, neatly stored in existing boxes and containers left here by our landlord.
When the harvest was in, I asked everyone if they'd like to be in a photo for a blog I was sure to post. :) Of course the kids were super excited, so here are our harvesters from left to right: Carter, Austin, Andy, Elly, Ethan. Not pictured, me. Liam had been napping the whole time. Behind is the alleyway we speak of so often.
As Andy and I prepared a hasty lunch of three left-over soups, we invited the boys to stay and eat. While we worked in the kitchen, they played with our little ones. When it was time to eat, they helped set the table and politely tried each soup, even though they had never heard of two of the three we were serving.
During the meal we were able to get to know Carter and Austin a little better. They are both ten and go to school together at the elementary school just a few block from our homes. When they saw Andy spicing up his soup with some chipotle powder in his soup, they wanted to try it as well. Soon this escalated into a no-holds-barred heat-tolerance-man-show in which each young man at the table tried to up the ante with more and more hot sauces from our fridge. By the end, Austin was pretty red and sweaty, but Carter held his own, going spice for spice with Andy and keeping his cool (we even broke out Might Mustard and had them try it straight up)!
When lunch was over, they helped clean up the table and then offered to clean up all the toys they'd used when playing with our kids. Before I knew it, they had the broom out and my washcloth and were urging me not to leave the kitchen until they were ready for me to see their work. "Almost there! Don't look yet!" I kept hearing from the other rooms.
It really warmed my heart. And the whole experience from harvest to meal time with these two ten year olds got me thinking about the children in our cities. As I washed the dishes and listened to the hustle in the living room, I wondered how many of our children are craving the sort of attention these boys were. They were literally begging to be put to work by us and when they finished one job, they happily moved on to the next. I bet they would have cleaned our bathroom had we asked.
When I was growing up in the country, I had designated chores from early on. Pretty much as soon as I could wield a broom and feed calves, I was officially employed by my parents. I began getting a weekly allowance of a few dollars per week and I was able to save up for toys or art supplies that I really wanted. It gave me a sense of value as well as responsibility in my own home. I went to a country grade school in which most of my friends had farms of their own and had the same home life as I did. It wasn't until middle school when they blended the city kids with the country kids in one big city school (big for a small town I guess) that I began to see how the "other half" lived outside of the classroom. Many walked home, dumped their backpacks in their rooms and ran off to someone else's house to play video games or play basketball or just loiter in the streets in groups until the dinner bells rang. These kids had nothing to do!
As middle school gave way to high school, the separation between country kids and city kids was far less apparent as many of us got involved in after school sports and spent more time at the school going to games and participating in clubs. As I reflect, however, those of us with chores waiting for us at home were far less likely to be the ones getting in trouble. It wasn't a generality, of course, because those farm kids are very ingenious with the way they spent their midnight hours on a weekend. It wouldn't be a small town without someone having been toilet papered over the weekend and a party in the woods being busted. Still, the sense of purpose and a general ability to face down temptation was higher in those of us with something real to do after school.
As more and more Americans have moved away from the farm or countryside and grow up in pretty little suburbs with everything at their fingers, there is a sense of un-direction in the youth. We've seen it with the Biker Gang down the street. This mindset of "I've got four hours to kill between the last bell ringing and dinner. What do you want to do today?" is perplexing those kids. They WANT something to do. They crave responsibility. How many college students can't handle the freedom when Mom and Dad are no longer there to come home to? How many thirty year olds are back living in their parents' home?
I grabbed a soup pot and began scrubbing as the clamor in the other rooms continued.
An overall sense of un-direction. What a disappointing and depressing way to feel. Austin and Carter, at age ten, showed the initiative and drive that I'm sure most of those kids have to begin with. Humans are designed to feel needed and useful, especially the children. I think it's only from years of being trained otherwise that folks grow into the cog role that most adults fulfill. Work for the weekend and indulge in as much pleasure as possible between 5pm Friday and 8am Monday.
It seemed to me that part of the reason Carter and Austin were the only polite kids on the block and so willing to help is a combination of desire to be needed and responsibility at home. I don't see them very much on the weekdays like I see most the other kids. I see them out and about on Saturdays, presumably their day off. The fact that they wanted to help us, then hang out with us, then eat with us and clean belied their own unique sense of family.
We seemed right to them. We felt safe. A garden was a familiar start for them to step into our world. We felt just as drawn to them, as if we could offer something for these boys that they might be missing.
"Ok, you can come look!" Austin yelped from the dining room. I was torn from my thoughts and the soup pot in my hands. I grabbed the kitchen towel and crossed the kitchen to the dining room door. "Wow!" I exclaimed, not even a bit exaggerating. They had washed the table, picked up the toys, swept the floor, put all the shoes in order, tidied up the end tables and folded the blankets in the living room. The place looked amazing and I'm not sure I could have done it better myself. Andy gave out boisterous high fives and I offered Mom-hugs to each child.
We sent them off with a bag of home-canned tomato products for their mothers and a handful of chocolate chips for themselves, and the promise that they were welcome to stop by anytime.
I really hope they take us up on that offer because it is genuine. Both of the boys were especially interested in what Andy had to say and followed his every move, whether he noticed or not. I felt very deeply that they needed us in some tangible way and who were we to brush that aside? I wish I had gotten their phone numbers so that I might call them over this week as we process tomatoes and make sausage. I know they would jump at the chance to learn a skill, to be useful. And their enthusiasm would be a wonderful influence on our small ones who are just learning the trades of self-sufficiency at home.
Yes, I'll be looking for those boys next Saturday, zipping by on their Razr scooters. We have so much we can share with them and I'm not really talking about the food.
This is how community starts in your own backyard garden.
PS: The freeze we were expecting never came. There will be another harvest before the week is out!