The morning after my mother died, the thin light woke me from a deep sleep. Within the strange first moments of this new day—my first on earth without my mom—I knew instinctively what I needed to do. I padded down the stairs and outside to the porch. There waited bags of soil, packets of vegetable seeds, and planting trays. I had intended to bring new life to our backyard garden for my mom to see in her last summer alive. But death had come to claim her sooner than any of us expected. At that moment, sowing seeds felt like the only thing I could to do grasp for power in a tremendous void of loss. I needed to birth new life in the wake of death. I was starting a new season and a new chapter in my life by seeding the crops that would feed my own, still living body.
It was while chopping vegetables for dinner each evening in South Africa that I first awakened to the powerful connection between food, agriculture and identity. My host mother—Nana – adored the mysteriously wild flavor of the greens and the cloying sweetness of overripe mangos we ate together, yet could rarely afford either on her paltry janitorial salary. My stay was an exception, as Nana received a stipend for hosting me. When she was growing up on a small farm in rural KwaZulu-Natal her family grew all the fresh produce they needed. But when she moved to the city looking for work during apartheid, she could no longer access to the foods of her childhood. On her tight budget, she filled her belly with Coca Cola, white bread, neon-colored processed cheese, and canned beet root. To Nana, these were the foods of apartheid’s lingering oppression.
Towards the end of my stay in Cato Manor, I visited a plot that neighbors had transformed from a vacant lot into a productive community-run farm. As the farmers walked me through the beds of native greens, squash, and potatoes, I sensed a tremendous joy and pride in the collective accomplishment of the farm. The harvest was not only one of healthy food, but of community empowerment and nourishment.
With my interest piqued, I spent the summer apprenticing at a community farm upon returning to the U.S. Filthy and exhausted, I was hooked at the end of my first day. Never had I felt so engaged with my community’s health and self-sufficiency. Little did I realize, though, how pervasive the thread of agriculture would become in the weave of my life.
In the March after my return from South Africa, I lost my mother to cancer. My mom had been an avid backyard gardener for most of her life, and our shared passion for growing food brought a previously unknown intimacy and joy to our relationship. Towards the end of her four-year illness, reveling in talk of farming distracted us from the silent acknowledgment that our time together was running out.
I have continued to grow food each season—from rural farms to small garden plots— since I first visited South Africa. These days I grow in community gardens and in my windowsills in Brooklyn. I have found an ad-hoc family among the cross-cultural community of gardeners and farmers, no matter where I am. Growing food has become the one constant in my life; it is the way in which I shape my own heritage and keep alive the memory of my mothers- both Nana and my own birthmother. Food and agriculture, I have come to see, speak a universal language. They ground us all in our history and strengthen our connection with our families, land, health and sense of self. In setting roots we become more resilient. I know I have.
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