As my mother shouts on the phone in the dining room, I head to the kitchen to absorb myself in food. Not just food, but the steps of food, the long process that starts with good earth and returns to it.
People think that because I am the oldest of us four kids I am the least impacted by my parent’s resent separation. I find that I am among the countless students who go to college and return home to find that their parents are separating. I find that I am being treated like an adolescent for the first time in my life, no longer a child, but not an adult.
I have been treated like a third adult for as long as I can remember. That was one of many things that changed after my first year of college. I came home to a world of parents bickering like three year olds over the butter dish and my mom counting pennies.
I have always grown food, but always because I wanted to, not because I felt I needed to. Growing food has been a hobby, a chore, a livelihood, and a passion. The pleasure of following food through its cycle is much more rewarding than simply eating. My passion for gardening has been matched by my passion for cooking and good food. So as my parents shout, I struggle through summer calculus and work two jobs, I find solace in food.
My food therapy started early in the spring when college became stressful. On weekends I would come home to start tomato seedlings in the house, or plant lettuce in the rich, dark, cool, rocky earth of my New England home. When school was done and my mother told me about the separation, as if I was some stranger looking in, rather than a visceral part of the family, I grabbed a pitchfork and headed to the garden. I turned earth for tomatoes and weeded potatoes, until my hands were raw, blistered and bleeding. They were not used to growing the food that nourished their cells. My hands were soft from a winter of academia. That would soon change.
I watered the watermelons with my tears. But I left my sorrow with the watermelons. I could not bring myself to tell even my closest friends. I couldn’t give pain or accept pity. But my vegetables took the pain, through endless hours of hoeing-pounding out my frustration on the stubborn weeds. The food I harvested never pitied me. As the summer wore on, the garden produced. I have cut, chopped, blanched, canned, pickled, frozen, fermented, and dried to keep up with the garden’s production.
The squash is an especially over-zealous crop. One night at dinner we had a toast to squash, everything had squash: stuffed squash, squash and cheese casserole, squash bread, squash and chocolate chip cookies. Upon bringing in yet another bushel of summer squash, my mom said, “we don’t have enough people to eat it anymore.” Her words cut me like a knife. No, my dad isn’t here anymore. My family is torn apart. The cornerstone of my foundation is split in two, literally.
I am growing, preparing, and preserving food that I won’t even eat. This is my families produce supply for the year. What I gain from my blistered hands and aching lower back is therapy. The garden is my psychiatrist, growing food and preparing it in a thousand different ways and finally watching it nourish the people that I love most is what keeps me sane. The plants accept me without passing any judgment- they just keep giving, if only my parents could do the same with each other. Cooking lets me express myself, something I am afraid to do. And eating is an experience of joy and happiness, emotions that I don’t want to forget.
To feed even part of my family elevates some of my guilt about leaving in the fall. When all that is left to do in the garden is harvest the last pumpkins and onions, I will be back at school. I will be away from the yelling and the fighting over butter dishes, I will be away from my three younger siblings who now have to choose on a daily basis, mommy, or daddy, not both. I can then, and only then, turn my attention back to my own life, because I believe in the power of food.