The truth is I did not love the man who was about to become my husband. What I loved was the romantic notion I had in my head about being the wife of a man who, with his father and his younger brother, farmed the sixteen hundred acres of Red Willow County land thirteen miles outside of McCook, Nebraska that his grandfather farmed before him.
They grew acres of golden wheat that was harvested the first week of July. They grew corn and alfalfa that was gathered in the autumn as feed for the cattle. Not far from the main house was a barn and corral from which the hogs would sometimes escape. Next to that, I seem to remember, was the chicken coop.
There was a part of me for whom choosing that life – a life connected to the earth and one that I imagined felt purposeful and authentic – felt like a calling. But I was only eighteen and the story I was telling myself about a life on the windswept prairie was just that. A story. And my heart knew that it was a story because another part of me knew being a farmer’s wife would not be the whole of my life.
(To be honest, I didn’t need my heart to tell me. In one brief summer break from college I had a few minor misadventures – including being seconds away from having my head crushed in a bale catcher – that were proof enough I wasn’t cut out for farm life.)
We married on June 18th, 1977, next to the farmhouse, under an arbor built by cousin Tom and laced with fresh cut grape vines. Colleen, a friend from college, played ‘Come Saturday Morning’ on her mandolin as I walked down the grassy aisle in my beige off-the-rack Gunne Sax dress. Seventeen months later, on November 24th, 1978 my husband drove me to the bus station in McCook. I boarded the Greyhound mid-morning on an overcast day and rode Interstate 80 for four hours across Nebraska’s earnest landscape. Back to our one-bedroom apartment south of Lincoln and within walking distance of my college campus. I turned twenty years old the day I separated from my husband. It was the last time I would see the ranch. It was the last time I would call myself a married woman. A farmer’s wife. I would spend the rest of the winter, into early spring, with my bare necessities packed in black bin bags, sleeping on dorm room floors or the art building’s threadbare sofa and stealing meals from the campus cafeteria while the lunch ladies turned a blind eye. I wasn’t happy but I was stupid enough to never doubt that my life would turn around. I spent the next four decades living metaphorically out of a black bin bag but in the end – albeit a little late in the game – my life did turn around.
What does an eighteen year old girl know about romantic love? I’m not proud that I married a man I didn’t have feelings for. I’m not proud of the hurt that caused. He was a good man but he was also a means to an end. An escape route.
What I loved was the possibility of wide open spaces. It’s not that I’m a great outdoorswoman. You won’t find me camping in the wilderness or scaling mountain peaks. After decades in California I’ve never been to Yosemite.
It’s the small things I’m in love with. The dirt beneath my feet. The earth. Fog banks hovering over the mountains. The sky and the stream. Birdsong and flowers waking up in the spring. And that has never faltered. This morning, just outside my living room window, I’m in awe of the mist that rolled down from the Blue Ridge to drape a sparkling grey scrim over the trees – the same trees whose bare black branches will slice into the pink dawn tomorrow. Later today, when I take my walk, the dank perfume of decaying leaves and muck rising up with each step from the muddy trail will anchor and soothe me. I’ll hear the the red shouldered hawks calling back and forth and see the turkey vultures circle over the hill. Bright red cardinals will flit before me from branch to branch, as if showing me the path to take. In a few weeks time, as seasons change, I’ll wonder when the bears will wake from their winter slumber and if my hiking poles will be a reasonable defense.
And, as seasons change and the earth warms, Ben and I will embrace our first growing season in Virginia and the romantic notion we have in our heads about the joy we’ll find in the growing of our own food. The sprawling fourteen hundred acres I married into all those decades ago is now a fourteen square foot mirpeset at the back of our townhome plus a slim little balcony off the living room and a small shaded porch next to the front door. Just enough for a kitchen garden: herbs, radishes, tomatoes and lettuce. Maybe some short and stubby variety of carrot. I’ve read that a potted fig can do well in our hardening zone if we protect it during the coldest part of winter. Ben loves figs and I love Ben. And we both love our cat Bruce so we’ll have catnip growing, too.
I’m certain the soft-focused images Ben and I have in our heads about our lush, verdant paradise have no basis in reality. No matter. There’s something primal about driving our hands into a freshly opened bag of potting soil. A tenuous connection is made with the generations who plowed the land before us to feed their community. Plus, there are no bale catchers or combine harvesters or flatbeds full of irrigation pipe to threaten injury. The worse that can happen (knock on wood) is a strained muscle from too much lifting or maybe a splinter or two from my refusal to wear gardening gloves.
Of course, it’s still too cold to plant anything outside. Even though it was eighty degrees in Virginia last week (and snowing in Bay Area!!!) the threat of another frost has not passed. And so I’ve taken over half of our dining table, using re-purposed salad containers as mini-greenhouses for two varieties of radish and cut toilet paper rolls as compostable seed starters for cherry tomatoes. The bell pepper and poblano pepper seeds are resting comfortably in little egg cartons.
The anticipation that builds as we wait for that first bright green sprout to find its way through the moist dirt toward the sun, and then to see it burst from the compost of our little toy garden is worth a sore back or bandaged finger. It’s enough to make Ben verklempt as I shout at the top of my lungs, “It’s alive!”
Six weeks from now, when our first harvest arrives, we’ll pull a ruby throated radish from the soil, brush it clean, slice it in half and – with a sprinkling of salt and perhaps a bit of butter – take one small, spicy bite and declare that radish to be the best radish ever grown. Ever.