When I was a child, I had a working mother. It was the 80s, so this was still a novel concept. While other moms baked and cleaned and did cross-stitch, mine put on a dress, heels, blush, and a spritz of Lauren and went to an office.
I loved seeing her all dressed up, and she was much happier as a working mom than she was as a stay-at-home mom, but Mom was not my role model. Our neighbor was. The one with five kids and a beauty shop off her family room, who had a kitchen garden and made her own ketchup and baked her own bread. After admiring the handiwork of a different neighbor, who made elaborate Precious Moments cross-stitch pictures while watching Days, I taught myself embroidery. Around this same time, Little House on the Prairie — both the show (which I’m barely old enough to remember) and the books — lit a fire of self-reliance in my soul. I was fascinated with handwashing clothes, churning butter, grinding grain. I used to entertain this fantasy of marrying a farmer and grinding the wheat with which I’d make our bread. Which of course would be buttered with butter I churned myself.
My mom, who baked, sewed, crocheted, and knitted, but who was equally fond of shopping in big cities and dining out, was both amused and bemused by my pioneer obsession.
For years I lived in apartments. I could have, and did have, a windowsill herb garden, but growing veggies was out of the question. During these years, I learned to make more and more foods from scratch. I loved the challenge of it. I went from being a TV dinner nuker to someone who could and did make elaborate dishes from raw ingredients. Food that was as tasty as it was healthy. (Okay, some of it was healthy.) But how great would it be, I asked myself, if my ingredients came from my own yard?
I had this vision of myself as a SAHM who grew our food, sewed our clothes, cut everyone’s hair, and made everything from scratch, from the embroidered dining chair cushions to the condiments in our fridge to the herbal remedies I was going to make to cure all that ailed us. I was going to hang our laundry on a clothesline. I was going to knit and/or crochet all our sweaters. I was going to decorate our home with my own paintings, make my own skin care and hair care products, wash my face in morning dew that I collected in a bowl on my back porch. (This oddly specific idea came from my mornings on the school playground, running my fingers along the dew-damp grass, then rubbing the water on my skin.) I was going to be admired among those in my inner circle for my baking skills. I was going to give handcrafted gifts, build furniture, take care of all our home renovations. Everything we wanted or needed, I would make with my own two hands.
Friends, it didn’t happen.
The shift started when I realized I was going to have to change the S to SAHM to a W. Fine, I thought. My neighbor had a successful salon in her house. I began to aspire to whatever would let me work from home. Maybe I would make and sell jewelry or something. Or write after the kids went to sleep. I’d find a way to make some extra cash. I’m resourceful like that.
Another cog slipped when I had a kid, downshifted my career, and realized how unhappy losing that W made me. Okay, so I’ll have to work full time at an actual job, not something that merely brings in cash. I can do that. It meant I wouldn’t have as much free time, but I figured I’d find a way to fit it all in. I’m a hard worker.
It came as a blow when I realized I really don’t have the patience to sew clothes. (When the pandemic hit, I found a simple pattern, dusted off my sewing machine, and made a mask. One. It took days, and it’s terrible. I would much rather give Uniqlo $25 for 3 masks. It’s cheaper.) But I rallied. Whatevs; I’ll just buy those.
I did, if you’ve been following me for a bit, try my hand at homemade laundry soap, cleaning products, and hair/skin care products. Then I found commercially available products that don’t irritate my allergies and also, y’know, work. Similarly, I discovered that herbal remedies only tend to work if you’re not all that sick. (That dew thing went out the window when I realized what all might be in that dew.
Finally — don’t laugh — I severely underestimated just how much work kids are. I had these sugar-coated visions of bathtime and tantrums and flung food. Parenthood as a montage. I did not anticipate flopping into bed after an 18-hour day being so tired I ached, day after day, year after year. I had no idea I would be in survival mode long after the newborn days.
What was I thinking? I barely have time to do laundry and wipe the fur off the furniture. I have a grocery store five miles from my home, and it’s full of boxes of food that just require water and heat. To hell with this garden thing.
Still, I tried to garden. It was a challenge at that point: I just wanted one time to fix a meal with ingredients I grew myself. Just to see what it felt like. We rented a house two weeks after Anya was born, and for the first time in my adult life I had a yard. Year after year I planted seeds, and year after year they grew, then died. I think I salvaged a handful of peas once. The rest of the plants died from neglect. I just didn’t have time to garden. But I didn’t have time to cook, either, so it worked out. Back to fixing food from packages that are ready in 30 minutes or less.
Then my digestive system revolted, and I found myself once again making all the food from scratch. Scouring labels for triggers. Learning to make things myself when I couldn’t find it ready made. The more foods I eliminated, the more I had to learn to make.
As if that didn’t complicate things enough, we threw a pandemic in the mix. I began looking at the kitchen garden as less of a science experiment for the kids and more of a necessity. Cooking homegrown food is tasty, yes, but it also ensures there is food.
This year is the first time I’ve had anything resembling success in the garden. (Not gonna lie; it’s all R. I have no idea what I am doing.) We have made a couple of batches of tomato sauce with our harvest, seasoned with herbs I grew myself, and have the makings for more in the freezer — plus we gave some tomatoes to my parents. We have a stash of lima beans. R made two batches of pickles with the cucumbers we’ve harvested. We have a watermelon in the fridge, and more on the vines. And the part I’m most excited about: Butternut squash. Two beauties out there finishing off, and flowers galore. Each morning I check excitedly to see if more baby squash have popped up.
We also have proper flower gardens now. The previous owners had planted hydrangea and hosta in the front of the house, and they’re pretty much plug and play. We water them on occasion, but otherwise they don’t need us. So I’ve been working on the back of the house. I dropped a couple hundred bucks at the botanic garden’s plant sale this year and picked up a butterfly bush, shamrocks, hens and chicks, petunias, mint, and rosemary, plus a bunch of other plants I can’t name. R bought these red fluffy plants that looked like flames. We dug and edged and planted and filled with rock two flower bed and a pollinator garden. Then the yard guy sprayed for weeds and much of it died. The butterfly bush — Kai’s pick — rallied, at least, and the pink flowers I bought even grew into mini bushes. My bare patio now has flower beds flanking a morning glory-covered arch. The pollinator garden failed to grow, but the sunflowers on the side of the house are taller than Kai.
The garden has enthralled me. My parents didn’t garden, so I have no experience with it, and I’m slightly amused with how emotional I get about everything. Each fertilized blossom fills me with the same excitement I felt when I detected the first pregnancy symptoms. I mourn the loss of baby fruits and vegetables — not at the level of my own losses, of course, but they still make me sad. I feel a connection to these plants that I never anticipated. And they bring me joy beyond my wildest dreams.
My backyard is a haven for cardinals, robins, doves, hummingbirds, and countless other birds I cannot name yet. We have butterflies, hummingbird moths (Google them — they’re super cool), frogs, lizards, ladybugs, and cute little inchworms. Plus a squirrel that my daughter terrorizes, but that’s a story for another post.
For my birthday this year, my parents gave me a check and told me to buy some nice patio furniture. So I have a proper table and padded chairs, and an umbrella that tilts and even lights up. It’s too hot to go out there right now, but in the next month or so I see me spending lots of time out there, drinking tea and admiring my view.
I’m already planning next year’s garden. The food part and the flower part. I want a lush haven that gives us food to eat and wildlife to watch. I want to put plants in the ground, nurture them, and watch them grow. I want to feed my family with food that I grew. I want to sit on the patio on a cool spring day with my mom and watch butterflies.
I never wanted to be a SAHM, I realize now. Or the homesteader I once imagined I would become. But I do enjoy being a gardener. I feel more connected with nature as I nurture foods and flowers. I feel more connected with my loved ones when I feed them dishes I prepared from food I grew myself. I haven’t given up on making stuff for the house — Anya and I are plotting a garage workshop so we can make furniture, or at least refinish furniture. And one of these days I’m going to crochet again. For right now, though, gardening is good enough for me.