My garden is no longer my own. I have a weeding partner early mornings, when the shadows are long and the air is cool. Annette, from Gaborone, Botswana, is the mother of our “host son,” Aubrey, who has been attending Middlebury College for the past four years. She arrived a week ago to witness his graduation.
At age 66, Annette had never been on a plane before last Tuesday. By the time she got to Vermont, exhausted from 30 hours of travel, she had been on three planes, and negotiated the airports of Gaborone, Johannesburg and Newark. Dazed, but happy, she folded Aubrey in her arms for the first time in two and a half years.
We took only back roads to my house in Middlebury so she could see the working landscape of the state her son has called home for four years. Driving south from Burlington, paralleling Route 7 through Charlotte, Monkton, Ferrisburgh, New Haven, finally Middlebury, we passed working farms, rode through newly greening woods, by ponds flanked with wild flag, past meadows with sheep and pastures dotted with cows and horses, and slowed down through small town centers, past kitchen gardens and homes.
“I need to know, are there poisonous snakes in Vermont? What kind of wild animals are there?” she asked. Next to a small dairy farm she exclaimed, “These farmers, they must be very rich!” (“Not really,” I said), and, “It is so beautiful here, but it is not like I imagined.”
Annette is a chicken farmer. She raises broilers, in batches of 4,000 every six weeks, all on her own, since her husband died 14 years ago. She has raised many children on her farm, her own sons and daughters, and foster children, mostly orphaned girls. In September she will receive a national award from the president of Botswana for her work with young women.
Once after dinner two years ago, Aubrey showed us where his mother lived on Google Earth. Unbelievably, we could zoom into that map close enough to see the roofs of the chicken houses, the tool shed, a small bungalow where Annette lives, an old truck, one large shade tree and an area that is the garden. After explaining what we were looking at, he suddenly exclaimed, “Let’s stop. This is making me homesick.”
Annette and I have been gardening together for just a week, but this is where our friendship has grown. She cultivates the soil differently and she does not approve of my sprinkler. “That wastes water. How much do you pay for water? In my country it is so expensive …. I have pots and pitchers and pails arranged all under my gutters for when it rains.” She loves herbs, and every morning she picks fresh mint from my garden to put into tea. She thinned the row of kale and transplanted the little plants (I usually eat them). We talk about the different plants in our two worlds, the different soils, the differences in rainfall and sunlight. But the weeds — apparently our weeds are the same!
Not only have we been companions in the garden, but in the kitchen, too, alongside friends from Gujarat, India, our sons, and friends from nearby. Many hands have been preparing our countless meals, recipes have been shared, and tales of different gardens and plants. No matter where they have come from this week, our guests share a love of growing — and eating — food. We do not necessarily use the same ingredients, techniques or even words, but we all speak the same language.
Annette’s son and my son both graduated from college over the past two weeks. When we planned the party for them, my son’s “village” helped prepare the meal. John and I provided meat for the grill (local lamb and chicken), liquid refreshments, and an enormous salad (for 40 people) out of the garden. Our neighbors and friends brought side dishes: cold salads (marinated green beans, three bean salad, asparagus rolled in lettuce garnished with a chive blossom), devilled eggs, local cheeses, homemade bread, vegetables and dip. Our friends from India prepared aloo paratha, a flavored potato pancake pan fried in ghee (clarified butter) that is dipped in raita (a cucumber and yogurt dip flavored, in this case, with fresh toasted and ground cumin). My son, Charles, made almond cakes for dessert. We lit a campfire and lots of candles, and sat around the fire in the clear almost-summer night, eating, noticing the new moon, and sharing stories.
Monday morning, after someone in the Memorial Day parade handed her a small tomato plant, Annette came back here to plant it, and another friend asked, “Don’t you want to check with Kate where to put it?”
“Oh no!” she said, “This garden is now mine!
So be it. I like that she feels at home here and that our sons are launching out into the world at the same time.