Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Children and Gardens, How Do They Grow?

It is that time of the year that lingers between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Fall comes late to the Southwest and the leaves are just beginning to turn brown and fall off the trees.  It is predicted to be the first freeze of the year which means I will have to pick all my vegetables and fruit tonight or risk losing them to the frost.  Other plants will need to be covered to protect tender leaves.  After a fast writing tour in Southern Arizona I am scrambling to catch up with my life when the phone rings.  It is my youngest adult child, my son, requesting my precious time.

“Are you sure you can’t come with me to look at the truck? I need moral support.”  I sigh, but not so loud as to let him hear me.  My work as a writer allows me more flexibility than his father who is boxed in a traditional job.

“OK, but you’re gonna owe me,” I reply. “I need help with the gardens. I have pumpkins and squash to bring in; beans, peppers and corn to pick; the new lime tree needs to be protected, and I have to put sheets over all the vegetables.” Negotiations complete, I tell him to pick me up in thirty minutes.  Pulling out of the driveway I note the time at 12:21 pm.

This is the first new vehicle for this young man.  His previous car, a hand-me-down from his Nana, is terminal.  The white, GMC Jimmy, has served him well for many years.  A decade ago he used it to take his Nana to the grocer, and patiently wait for her to pick out just the right tomato paste while she showed off her handsome grandson to the cashiers.  Her spirit clings to the Jimmy and there is a certain sadness to selling an old car, yet it is time to take the next step.

We find the shiny, silver pick-up he has been eyeing positioned in front of the dealership.  It is used, in good condition, and has earned an acceptable amount of miles. Like all of us, this truck shows the marks of life: a stain on the upholstery, tiny scratches by the door, the faint hint of an odor that lingers in the cab. 

Each of us circle the vehicle like a pair of sharks.  I am looking for all the things I have been surprised with when I have made a vehicle purchase in the past.  He has a look of longing on his face.  I have seen this look before with other men wandering through car shows.  The men age, their hair grays, but the look never changes.  The desire and admiration for polished metal and roaring engines remains forever, and I see my son is in love.

On the test drive we push every button we can find to make sure it does what it is designed to do.  He floors the pedal down an empty street and suddenly he has wings!  In a parking lot he switches to four-wheel drive, and I envision him at the family cabin meandering down snowy roads.

Back at the dealership we sit down to level the playing field.  The truck needs to be detailed and taken to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. I ask to see the dealership’s license and the owner complies.  We run a check on the VIN number, discuss interest rates and credit records. Signatures are exchanged with a small cash deposit, and I am assured my son gets his money back if this pretty truck sours into a lemon.

He drives me home and the clock reads 3:30 pm. The sun is low in the sky and the air is already chilled.  My desert bones tell me it will definitely freeze tonight. We head out to the back field and he moves my heavy pumpkins to the porch while I pull beans for drying.  The vegetables that can survive the frost will still need to be nurtured and protected and I race to beat the fading light.  It is quiet for a while as the shadows elongate and then he speaks.

“You know, I don’t know how I would do this stuff without your help.”  I feel my heart slide up to catch in my throat.  My firefighter son that runs toward burning buildings still needs his Mom! I understand what he is says, vaguely remembering feeling the same way about my own parents and how it would be impossible for me to function without them.

“It’s generational,” I reply. “Nana and Grandpa taught me what I needed to know.  You pay attention to the details and do your homework. Then throw in some hard-won life lessons and you figure it out. Someday you will do the same with your children.”

“But what about people like Josh.”  Josh, a childhood friend, has come up the hard way.  He is a self-made man, and has been since his early teen years.  Everything he has learned has been through his own efforts. Joseph continues, “His parents always needed him more than he needed his parents.”

“You’re right,” I said.  “Josh is an old soul. He has always known what to do and how to do it right.  And now he has broken the cycle.  He understands what it takes to be a good parent and will lead his children forward the same way Dad and I have guided you and your sisters.”

He continues to care for my vegetables, deep in thought, undoubtedly about his new truck. Holding a basket full of the fruits of my labor, I watch him from across the yard and recall a comment from a friend with two wonderful sons of her own.

“I don’t get it,” I had said to Margie.  “We were young parents with no experience.  How did we manage to produce three adult children that respect their bodies and minds, assume their own responsibility, love each other, and are as beautiful inside as out?  Hell, I had no idea what I was doing.”

“It’s an investment,” she replies. “You put in the time when they are young and vulnerable and it pays off later.”  I had a “Duh” moment. Why had I not seen this earlier?  She was completely right.  I thought about all the times we had struggled to make it to parent-teacher conferences, holiday recitals, dance classes, drum lessons, soccer games, and heal broken hearts.  We made sure they had the right friends, respected animals, treated the less fortunate with kindness, marveled at nature, learned from history, acknowledged authority, and questioned authority. Instinctively, we spent every ounce of energy protecting and nurturing all three of them, and routinely reminded them they needed to the same for each other. Now, nestled in the autumn of my life, I am amazed we had the energy to get through each daily challenge.

Back in my real world the sun is down, and another day has passed. My baskets of vegetables from the season’s harvest are lined up in the kitchen.  Because I have invested the time to take care of my gardens, the vegetables will take care of me later.

 I am hoping my kids will too.

Monday, November 21, 2016

How to Adopt a Vegetable

For the first time in my life I am making my own cornmeal. I can't begin to tell you how fascinating and comforting it is to see the yellowish-red cornmeal collect in my mixing bowl. It has been several months from planting to harvest to processing to baking. My husband and I have delighted in every step. It is fairly unusual behavior for a couple of city folks, acting out as urban farmers.  But don't knock it 'til you've tried it. Out in the Grain Garden as we call it, I peel open a full, dried ear of corn and show it to my husband, our first attempt growing corn to make flour.

   "It's beautiful!" he exclaims, examining the dried corn still clinging to the cob. The kernels are deep gold, tipped in a maroon red. It is a variety named Red Floriani, and is coveted as a premium corn for grinding into flour or making polenta. But this corn has made it clear it does not like growing in our desert.  It has taken a lot of pampering to get the ears we have collected.  Contrary to this the Blue Hopi desert corn, did very well in its small plot across the yard.

   "Well, it was an experiment," I reply.  "At least now we know which variety will grow best in this heat." Secretly I look at the pile of dried corn and wonder how much we have actually produced.  I am thinking in terms of quarts instead of pounds.  "If we were pilgrims, we'd be facing a harsh, hungry winter," I continue. He chuckles and agrees, and then adds that we are fortunate that scenario is not playing out today.

It may not be playing out like that today on my little U.S.A. urban farm, but somewhere it unfolds.

I say nothing but I am thinking of families in other countries that do not know how they will get through the next season or even the next meal. In my mind I recall this week's news and see children running through the streets as bombs explode nearby.  I wondered where their family was, if  one even existed. I remember "The Lost Boys," one of which works near my home at the neighborhood grocer. What does he think of our society and land of plenty? Are we a fortunate society or just ungrateful?
Thanksgiving is three days away.  Today I take my meager collection of reddish cornmeal and make a large pan of cornbread.  This will evolve to my famous cornbread dressing which my son claims he cannot survive without during the holiday season. At least that's what he tells me. Again, I think of the irony.

I have this notion that I want everyone to grow something edible at least once in their life.  I want them to relate to the little plant that begins from a tiny seed programmed with all the DNA it needs to produce the identical plant for generations. I want them to feel the excitement of seeing a flower blossom and fruit; how water, dirt and sunshine create food in partnership with this living thing. Then I want them to delight in the taste of food harvested and prepared in minutes. Finally, I want them to collect those seeds and save them for the next planting season. And while all these little miracles are happening before their very eyes, I want them to appreciate the journey.

In between Christmas and New Years we will be planting our winter wheat.  In the meantime the Grain Garden will be cleared of the corn, beans and pumpkins.  The soil will be turned, possibly seeded with a cover crop, and the cycle will start all over again. We're hoping Mother Nature will be in a good mood and will work her magic once again.

If we could only convince her to harvest, thrash, and process the wheat, it would be a more-than-perfect world. However, if I have convinced you to adopt a vegetable, then I am equally delighted. May your garden, table and belly always be full. And please pray the same for the rest of the world.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

When a Home is Not a House

When my mother died several years ago I was given the option of buying my brother out for his half of Mom's home.  He was more than ready to let it go, but I clung to it like a life-preserver, for that's what it was: a building filled with memories that would keep my grief manageable in the years that followed. I rented the home to a neighborhood family that supported my mother after Dad died.  Steve had provided her handyman needs and he was a man that she trusted. This was no small accomplishment in dealing with a Sicilian grandmother.

Today Steve's granddaughter, a child with diabetes, lives down the street in Mom's little brick house. It is a comfort to the families that they are so close together and can be available to help each other as needed. That is the definition of community and family rolled into one.

From the early weeks after my mother's death I was badgered by realtors and investors wanting to buy my mother's home. I pictured them stalking the obituaries. At that time I was angry and bitter and replied with aggressive, ugly letters that accused them of being piranhas. In time, my anger faded and I came to recognize the trash envelopes in my mail containing the annoying solicitations. Usually they were dumped in the outside trash before they could contaminate my home. I continued to find them filled with false promises to people that believed they would be given a fair price for a home they could no longer afford to keep. In my eyes these so-called investors were stealing dreams; in their eyes they saw dollar signs. That is until Scott came along.

Several days ago I received yet another solicitation. I am not sure even now why I bothered to open it. Inside was the usual promise of money magically manifesting when my home was taken, but down in the right corner was a photograph of a young man in a suit and tie and I was immediately taken by him. He had a kind, sincere face and a future of promise was written all over his smile. I knew then it was my duty as an Elder to educate Scott about life when several decades have passed and lessons lay at your feet like a pile of presents.  Likely I will never know this young man, but I have placed a lot of faith in his ability to make this world, my community, a better place.  This is the letter I wrote to Scott, the realtor: 

Dear Scott,

For the umpteenth-millionth time I got another solicitation for the sale of my home. Today it was your letter.  Please take a moment to read what I have to say.  I like your picture and you look like a nice guy with a promising future. I want to share some wisdom. This makes you special!  You do not want to know about some of the replies I have made in the past to these kinds of letters.

I know you want to buy my home. It is located in a “hot” area. Your letter promises to close fast, eliminate stress, and with this I get an unconditional cash offer.  Oh, and my home will sell for a "Premium"

I also know that investors prey on people that are stuck with a home tying up precious cash. Maybe a relative left it to them and they can’t pay the taxes; maybe it holds painful memories. It could be run down and they don’t want to bother fixing it.  All they want to do is get rid of the house. Then there are people like me.

We call our home on Vista Drive the Alamo. That means it is the last place I will retreat when I can no longer care for my farm. It will be a small home where I can still have my hens, my small garden, and my irrigation. It is the home where I started my life.

How would you ever know that home was built for me sixty years ago? It was in the county then. My mother was seven months pregnant when she was nailing the shingles on the roof.  My father built his house paycheck to paycheck, and it was paid for when they moved in with their teenage son and their new baby girl.  Until I got married, I did not know what a mortgage was.

You would not know that my first grade birthday party was held in that very carport. That the mulberry tree in the house east to us was also our property, and I could scale it like a monkey.  I cried in that tree when I was mad at the world. We delivered eight Dalmatian puppies in that storage room. My sixteenth birthday party was hosted in the dining room. My parents and their friends got drunk and put together my swing set on Christmas Eve in the living room. One day, hiding in the back bedroom, my older brother and I scanned the personal ads in the newspapers looking for his future girlfriend. The one I picked became his wife and they were married over thirty years until he died last spring. And I watched tears run down my ninety-year-old mother’s face as she sat in her kitchen watching me take her clothes out the door to the group home where she would die five months later. You see I am the only surviving member of the family that lived in that wonderful, old home.

                               The yellow brick house that grew into a home.

The family that rents this home is the daughter of the man that helped care for my mother after my father died. Their child is diabetic and they want to be close to their each other.  I am happy to rent my home at a fair price to return the service they provided for my family.

You are playing the numbers game.  But for people like me and my family, you will need a different approach.  Put a few extra sentences in your letter addressing the other side, those of us that will find it difficult to let go of the memories attached to not a building, but a home. There will be people like me that will see your approach as different, special, and you will earn their consideration. 

Good luck to you Scott.  I hope you remember to make this world a better place. I am putting a lot of trust in your generation. I see a lot of promise, even in those younger than you. There is a reason I am picking on you and I’m not sure why that is. I just feel like you are the guy that is going to make a difference in your profession.  Don’t let me down.

Josephine DeFalco