One of the greatest things about the garden this year was how much it was able to take me back. Walking through the kitchen and being greeted by the smells of recently cooked bacon, and the still-lingering sweetness of cantaloupe instantly transported me back to my childhood, and summer visits to my grandparents’ farm in Mississippi. I only saw my grandparents every three years or so, but the memories of those visits stand out clearly in my mind and have both informed and encouraged my gardening and homesteading efforts over the past year.
Pop and Mama Re owned their farm for over 40 years, and for at least half of that time, encompassing my childhood, they worried that the highway would “take” their farm, which it eventually did. They lived west of Mississippi State University on Highway 82 in a house set about a quarter mile off the road at the end of a long, rock driveway. When I was very little Pop kept cows, and feeding them was always a big treat. But by the time I was in grade school, the big draw was the tractor – a huge old green John Deere that was kept in a graying barn on a hill near the orchard and overlooking the house and garden. Pop and Mama Re had a huge garden, with which they supplied all of their vegetable needs, and a “deep freeze” in which they stored them. Every summer visit included shucking corn, picking and then shelling or snapping beans, standing on a stool at the kitchen sink stirring the skins off of blanched tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Pop always took me out to pick wild blackberries so Mama Re could make them into a blackberry cobbler. I remember when Pop got a dehydrator. He dehydrated everything, and drove everyone crazy walking up to them and popping some highly concentrated flavor into their mouths.
We churned homemade ice cream, and went on walks through the property. Pop was never without a weapon for protection against wildcats and bears. We wore straw hats, long sleeves and long pants tucked into boots to keep the ticks off of us. We weren’t allowed to play back in those vast expanses of land behind the house, because people hunted deer on it. My grandfather himself did not hunt, but always maintained that the hunters would “burn him out” if he didn’t allow them to hunt on his property, a conjecture that always mystified me.
My first significant life decision was made on one of those visits. For much of my childhood I wanted to be a veterinarian. One year Pop took us across the highway to visit his neighbor’s dairy. One of the cows there was pregnant, and the farmer asked me if I wanted to reach inside the cow to feel the baby calf. This was something that I just could not bring myself to do, and I experienced my first real disappointment in myself, at this deficit of courage, at my failure to meet my own expectations of myself. This disappointment was life-altering. After the incident I felt like I probably didn’t really have what it took to be a Vet, and the idea kind of slipped away, and I’ve regretted that lost opportunity ever since.
As an adult I’ve ushered at least four litters of puppies into the world. I experienced a natural, unmedicated childbirth. I’m not particularly squeamish. I’ve also come to realize things about life that I did not understand as a child; like that we can overcome our inhibitions; we can continue on in the face of fears and that most fears are the consequence of apprehension and are quickly dissipated by experience. If I had that moment of my life to live over again, I would sure put my hand inside that cow. But even if I didn’t; I wouldn’t let that single moment deviate me from a purpose that I had believed was mine for most of my thinking life.
I never imagined that I would grow up to be so much like Pop; that I would have so many similar interests; that, like him, I would be a bundle of energy and unable on most days to sit still, moving from one project – from one grand scheme – to the next.
When my husband and I were married in December 1994, it was already too late for us to share with one another some of the things that had made us what we are. I never got to take him to a Grateful Dead concert. He never got to take me to Sea King, his aunt and uncle’s seafood store which, for some years, was a Maryland landmark. Thankfully, I was able to take him to my grandparents’ farm – one time – before the highway “took it”. One of my husband’s sharpest memories of Pop was asking him what happened to his John Deere tractor. He sold it, Pop told him. When my husband asked him how much he got for it, Pop replied, “More than I deserved”.
Somehow I doubt that.