I was raised up in a clan of sho’ nuff knotty-headed, shoot-from-the-hip African American women, a long line of gardeners for whom gardening was no hobby. Gardening was a fact. It was a fact the same way going to church was a fact, the way cleaning rich people’s houses and cooking their grits were facts, the way whupping a child’s behind to keep her in school getting straight A’s was a fact.
I don’t know that my grandmother or either of her younger sisters actually enjoyed gardening. Mostly, I remember my grandmother or Aunt Elaine sweating over a hoe in the terrible summer heat. I also remember hours snapping sack after sack after sack (so it seemed to me) of green beans, each sack radiating the field heat the beans had soaked up from the sun earlier in the day.
What I do know is that something about gardening well gave them enormous satisfaction. No memory of my grandmother’s face is more powerfully imprinted in my mind than the deep pleasure, I mean the sho’ nuff deep pleasure she took picking a fresh plum from her tree, and feeding me straight from the fingers of her own hand.
Those plums were so ripe, and so hot from the sun they burst in your mouth when you bit down. There was no nice way to eat those plums. The juice was too copious. Mouths are too small to contain such abundance. That juice had nowhere else to go except down your chin.
Grandma was a stern woman with a frown so potent she could part a crowded grocery aisle the way Moses parted the Red Sea. But somehow, feeding me “her” plums never failed to bring out rare rumbling laughter; and she bragged to everyone how her grand baby couldn’t get enough of “her” plums.
When I was nine years old, I was incredibly blessed to attend North Country School, a very special private elementary school where students, faculty and staff worked together to grow and raise nearly all of the school’s own food using organic methods. That experience certainly added to the foundation laid down in my own family culture. The relationship between hard work and food, shared work and shared food, wholesomeness and soil, sweat and satisfaction were nurtured there, and to this day are part of the bedrock of my belief system.