Plants were a sporadic visitor in my childhood -- half-eggshells sprouting tufts of spring grass, carrots with lofty tops growing in cups of water, radishes and marigolds in the backyard. On Valentine's Day of 1980, my dad and stepmother, Amy, gave me a small Norfolk pine; several months later it toppled out my window to its death. Amy kept a small garden -- some tomatoes, peppers -- in large pots on the patio of their townhouse. Several years later, when they moved to North Carolina, I was introduced to farming. On two fronts.
My mother's old boyfriend, Kent, grew up in southside Virginia just outside of the small town of Burkeville. His parents continued to totter about the family farm -- homestead, really. It was there that I first learned to drive a tractor; struggled in summer heat as I dug into hot, red clay for potatoes; hung a dead snake on a fence. Kent taught me to make applesauce and grape juice from scratch -- with apples and grapes we picked ourselves. And for several years, I earned the first real money of my life selling Christmas trees harvested from a field Kent had planted years earlier.
Further south in North Carolina, my dad and stepmother settled into her own father's family farm. I heaved bales of hay onto trailers, pulled weeds in the garden and learned to can produce. Green beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, okra, asparagus, peppers, corn...
I listened and watched as Amy tended her mother's rock garden, as my dad planted new trees and took down old ones, as their home exploded with plants, produce and love.
In 1997, my dad died of lung cancer after a brief struggle. Exactly five years after his death, Amy was diagnosed with the same disease and died almost as swiftly. One of the last things Nikole and I took from their farm were two peony plants for our yard. Last month, close to the day that I sat in a hospital room and learned of my dad's diagnosis, one of the peonies, which we thought didn't survive, erupted from the ground.