My mother’s parents were farmers, and their farm had everything from peanuts to peaches. They also had blackberry bushes, the harvest of which was my mother’s least favorite activity. My mother had fragile alabaster skin, and walking through the blackberry brush left her looking like she’d rolled in a barbed wire fence. At least, that’s what she said. My mother wasn’t really cut out for farming.
I spent the summer between fourth and fifth grades with my grandparents, sleeping in the bed that my mother and her sister shared, nestled under a white chenille cover that had also been theirs. My grandparents’ house wasn’t air conditioned, and we kept schedule accordingly, rising at 5 for breakfast, heading out to pick green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, greens and corn before it got too hot. After dinner (lunch) it was reading and resting time, sitting by a fan to take the edge off the heat. We would go back out when the sun started to set.
My grandfather tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me how to recognize a tree from 100 yards away. “That’s a catalpa,” he would said, and I’d nod as if I had any idea what he was talking about. He told me the story of how he had grafted together yellow and white peach trees to make the sweetest and most wonderful peaches, hoping the nerd in me would be interested in the science. He showed me the blackberry patch that my mother hated, by then almost overtaken with kudzu. I wasn’t as tender skinned as my mother, having gotten my father’s tougher olive coating, but I quickly understood her hesitation.
My grandmother tried to teach me about canning and freezing, which were often the activities of the afternoon. There was far too much harvest to eat every day, and preserving it for the winter was a priority. They lived miles from the nearest grocery but wouldn’t have bought Birdseye or DelMonte anyway. They lived on what they grew, and they tried their best to teach me how.
I wasn’t cut out for farming either. I didn’t like getting dirty and sweaty or dealing with bugs and worms. I had no appreciation for the gift of that summer, eating food picked fresh that morning, being cared for by old country people who loved me more than words could ever have described. I wanted food that came in tidy packages, neatly served on handsome plates, but I tried to be polite. After the first few weeks my grandmother knew I would rather read than go in the fields with her, so she took to her chores alone and let me work my way through their entire collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed volumes, 10 shelves’ worth. They loved me anyway, farmer or not.
I think of my grandparents every Saturday morning at the farmers’ market. I think about what it takes to cultivate and harvest and bring to market a week’s yield. I see the smiling faces of the growers showing off to city shoppers armed with reusable shopping bags, and I am humbly grateful.
Two weeks until school starts back, and then we return to weekly menus. For now we’re still having a tapas summer, snacking and grazing and lazily content.