Every holiday season, I find myself grasping at a level of presence that suddenly seems unattainable. Usually, that takes the form of zoning out while my extended family gathers around an old pinball machine that my dad keeps in the office or wandering the alleys of Alexandria with my cousins the week after Christmas while our parents enjoy hot drinks and conversation around the fire. The epitome of such a feeling occurs when my eyes blur in and out of Hanukkah candles while we sing prayers in Hebrew and sway. I always find myself asking if these should be transcendent moments rather than familiar motions. Shouldn’t the holidays be all about the way that the sensation of togetherness interacts with tradition? And how will I ever know the meaning of such an intersection if I can’t even hold my focus through our family’s yearly “what I’m thankful for” circle on Thanksgiving day?
While working at Dayspring Farm this summer, I heard a seemingly unrelated story. One day, during our potluck lunch, my mentor and boss Charlie Maloney opened up about an accident. He described a head-on collision, a face-and-fender-busting explosion on a two-lane, two-way road near Duke University at 9pm some night in the early 70s. Charlie’s head was covered in blood, but his wounds were mostly superficial. His partener, Miriam had broken her back. They’d been driving home from a church gathering. They’d gotten married only months before. Now some idiot in a Ford Pinto had turned into their lane and changed them. After years and years of hard work in school and on their families’ respective farms, after trudging through life to find each other, know each other, and love each other, metal moving at high speed in two directions – one furious second – canceled everything. Charlie was the first person in his family to go to college. He graduated with honors. Miriam was an English major, a healer, a lover of life. None of it mattered now; would it ever matter again? Ignorant of the severity of Miriam’s fractured spine, the medical professionals at the scene had her walk to the ambulance. Charlie was also taken to the hospital but not admitted. They said they were too full to deal with a bloody face.
But the next morning they took him in. The gash above his eyebrow yawned after a sleepless night, and he needed stitches. But what he really needed was to see Miriam. She was resting, fully immobilized in a hulking brace, like Frida Kahlo.
“I’d been thrown against the windshield, and Miriam was bent over the seat. The first thing I remember thinking after snapping out of the semi-conscious shock of the accident was: is she alive?” Charlie’s looking right at me, almost through me. I realize that I’m 21, only a little younger than he was when it happened. I break eye contact for a moment to glance at Miriam across the way. She’s drinking the ginger kombucha that she likes to make by the gallon. The buckwheat patch by one of our picnic tables is abuzz with pollinators, and its rhubarb-colored woody stems bend in a rare August wind. I must look hollow. Charlie sees and smiles.
“But we were okay. Miriam was in that brace for six months. Bedridden for six months. Initially, the doctors weren’t sure what that accident would mean for her ability to walk, but we were blessed. She walks fine and has all her life. My eyes were inches away from flying shards of glass, but it’s my 70 birthday on Monday, and I can still see just as clear as when I was your age. I took care of Miriam and that is when we really bonded. I thought we couldn’t get any closer than when I’d finished walking down the aisle. Miriam shone. I was wrong. It’s funny how maturing is really just all about finding out how wrong you were in prior years and learning from the realization. And now we’ve made this life.”
Indeed, “this life” was all about growth and gratitude. Fifteen years after their accident, Miriam and Charlie bought their farm. It used to be a 14-acre corn field, grown using conventional methods. They planted cover crops that replenished the soil’s nutrients, used them for green manure, and established a garden. Soon, that garden grew. And grew. Their kids worked the land. Then volunteers came. Now they collaborate with a summer staff of up to six paid workers to deliver restaurant/grocery store orders and CSA bags across central and southern Virginia.
“And we’ve had a few related health issues, but not many. Certainly some scars.” Charlie touches his forehead, absentmindedly. “We’re lucky. I think that, after the crash, we both felt like we were living a new life.”
I mention to Charlie that he and Miriam have also steeped themselves in the process of life-building on their farm by raising their children alongside their vegetables and small-fruits. He chortles and says that I’ve always been the philosophical type. “It’s good to think that way,” he says, “but it’s also always important to just wake up every morning and do what you love. I think that that’s the most meaningful thing I took out of that smashed-up car and those six months of worry. Each day is a gift, and to share the food we grow and the way we grow it with the community is my tacit way of saying thank you. I do as much as I can to farm well because I can, and that in itself is something to be celebrated.”
Miriam, celebrating life.
This conversation has been living in my head during the start of this unprecedented holiday season. Its usual frenetic stress and rushed chatter to catch-up before the aunts, uncles, and step-grandparents fly back to their respective locales has been replaced by silent mornings, and, sometimes, I’ve been waking up sad. We just had our first four-person Thanksgiving, my mom, dad, sister, and I. There were no joyous shouts from the puzzle table or anecdotes from bygone beach trips when my mother’s family would pile into an un-airconditioned station wagon and drive nine hours for a one-night stay. And sometimes I’m still not present. But the food! The courage of plain sweet potatoes! To taste like that. They are little orange magic spells. The food brings me to Charlie and centers me. I know my family tastes it too.
“Each day is a gift, and to share the food we grow and the way we grow it with the community is my tacit way of saying thank you.”
Food is central to our holidays. Yom Kippur and Ramadan require a lack of it. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah beg butter and oil. There are so many articles about the hungry. One in seven Americans don’t have enough to eat this year. This ravaging year. This car crash of a year. The Agricultural Theory of Car Crashes tells us to wake up every morning to thank and share. Thank and share, for we all could use more love. Thank and share: work the land. Hug your mom or the memory of her. You’re still here and living so many second chances. You’ve made it so far. I am in awe of you. Each day is a gift, and this article is my explicit way of saying thank you.
Jonny Malks is a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Connect with him on Facebook and read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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