I found myself in my garden covered in water and sunk in the mud, fresh rivulets of water streaming off of my sunglasses on to my shirt, my pants wet through, my shoes caked. As the hose continued to profusely leak at the join, I shut the water off, gathered my things, and headed to the neighbor’s plot to water for her while she was abroad. Hoping her waterfall sprayer wouldn’t spray me like my own did. (It didn’t.)
A few months ago I read a truthful, harried, fed-up missive asking white people to stop trying to appropriate the Hamsa and to instead focus on our own cultural roots. I took that advice seriously. It was fair advice, as was the frustration with middle class white women searching for themselves in cultures that were not their own. Because you won’t find yourself until you’re ready to look deeply into the mirror.
I found myself living on a farm, as a young child of three years old, after a considerable family-related traumatic experience that was so horrible I’ve only spoken a few sentences about it in the decades since. We were there as a kindness bestowed upon us by my aunt and uncle, who owned a cattle farm in the wilderness and an electric supply store in the country. The initial months were tough and I don’t know if anyone outside my immediate family put words to what we were experiencing in that little trailer where we cohabitated, regrouping from the events from the year before. Both of my siblings fled the family home, and my brother fled the country.
My parents and I huddled around the tiny wood stove at night during that first winter, returning home to Virginia from Alabama and unused to the cold, and the constant stream of fire wood necessary to keep us from freezing to death in the darkness.
The youngest of three, separated by nineteen and eleven years across that divide, and the smallest kid, I was just a set of wide eyes and satellite dishes for ears, soaking in all the things happening in the darkness among my parents. Nobody gave much thought to what I thought or what I had to say. They were too busy surviving. I was punished for expressing disappointment or sadness. So I mainly tried to keep to myself. Trust was not something I was capable of, once I learned what adults were capable of.
During that year I was too young to go to school and I don’t think my parents could afford childcare. I remember going down the aisles of the safeway with my mom, crying in the store because we shopped in the poor section, with the cans with the black and white labels, separated from all the other food and produce with big black and white letters proclaiming what you were buying. Peas. Corn. Carrots. Our family poorhouse shame broadcast in large, plain letters on the cans we put on the conveyor belt. I don’t know how I knew that meant we were broke, but somehow I knew to feel that shame.
My mom got a job as cashier at the local caverns while my dad convalesced in various local psychiatric units around the countryside. There were large blocks of time where she was unable to watch me so that time was spent with my aunt, my uncle, my grandmother, and my cousin.
Although I am starting to forget what his shoes looked like, and what was in the corner of his mouth instead of champing on a cigar after he had his cancerous lung removed, I remember how he’d look at me, with a nod of his head and a tip of his always black stetson hat, and a grunt. His acknowledgment of my presence on his farm and in his life. He never asked me what happened with my parents in Alabama that day our lives changed forever. He never asked me how it affected me. Was I okay. In fact I don’t recall him saying too much in his deep gravely voice at all.
I remember his beautifully embroidered cowboy shirts. His leather black vest and bolo ties. His series of white contractor trucks. The rows and rows of electrical conduit at his electrical supply business. How he let me ride with him on his enclosed and air conditioned tractor while he farmed the hay that would feed his beautiful charolais cattle in those bucolic rolling pastures. We would take drives into town up 340 and I’d look through the trees at the south fork of the Shenandoah River as we sped by. He would give me bananas and take me for breakfast at the diner with the red spinning stools at the counter beside the bridges he and his wife outfitted with oblong frosted lights on the walkways.
I think I began to trust him somewhere around the time where he let me come in the barn pasture, holding a galvanized steel bucket with a nipple on the end as he supervised me feeding a calf with a lost mother. Kind of like me. I remember that sensation of wonder and awe and complete and utter joy as the little calf’s tongue reached out for more powdered milk. Can I touch him? I asked? Uncle Johnny grunted in response.
Somewhere after that words started coming out of me like a flood. I doubt I ever talked about what happened, or could trust the veracity of what escaped my mouth, but up until that point not a single adult in my life listened or gave a damn about what I had to say. And the adults in my life sure didn’t listen and let me talk without interrupting, judgment, or corrections to how I should actually be feeling. But he did all those things, with ease and more. Even though I would talk his poor ear off from the early morning hours until it was time for me to fall exhausted into sleep. I remember just how he’d adjust that hat over his eyes with his non-cigar peeking out of the corners of his clenched teeth. Just a tip of the hat. Somehow we were two people as different as night and day, but he did something that meant something to me. It meant everything to me.
His favorite food was lima beans. I remember the smell of my Aunt’s canning, the mixed spicy smell of their pantry. I remember standing on a chair to cut potatoes to do my bit to help with dinner. I remember in their farm house sitting in front of the petrified wood coffee table and breaking bread with them at dinner. Steak and potatoes, while we listened to the Everly brothers and I practiced my four step, admiring his black hat and boots. Wanting to please my Uncle but unable to pass the time in silence that he lived in.
Sometimes the love of one adult can make a difference in the life of a broken kid. I remember him standing in the pasture beside the barn, with his arms outstretched. How he wouldn’t let me mow the grass by myself but he’d let me ride along with him and then chase the moths and butterflies and gaze upon the orb weavers weaving their endless web on his endless bales of home grown hay. I remember standing in the blistering hot sun, bent over on their property off of 522, carefully picking the limas off the bushes with my tiny fingers, nestled under the high tower electrical lines running above. He was a man of few words but anyone who knew him well knew of his love for limas. Butter beans. Cooked all day with a stick of butter. And I would do anything to please this man who had done so much for me. So I picked and picked and picked, happy to be doing something that would make him happy.
And now after numerous years and decades have gone by I plant my own garden with his Fordhook 242 Limas, holding a broken kid of my own next to my heart.
I can’t wait to grow and harvest and cook these beans, just how you’d like, Uncle Johnny. I may be a little seed that went through scarification, but I am alive.
I am alive.