My neighbor Wilma is the person that everyone in the community knows and goes to if they have an issue. Upon my mom’s suggestion that she would appreciate some produce, I bought some tomatoes over (seeing a pattern here?) and inadvertently received a history lesson and inspiration in return.
Wilma’s family has lived here for four generations – not just the town, but the neighborhood itself. Her grandfather lived around the corner from us. In contrast, my family hasn’t even lived in this country for four generations. My dad’s mother immigrated from Poland; my great-grandfather from what is now the Czech Republic. While I heard of stories about traveling from far-off lands, she’s seen the history of this country through the lens of our neighborhood. As one of the first places where former slaves could buy property in Maryland, it has always been a largely African-American neighborhood, originally a safe refuge from the rest of the world. Wilma’s seen it move from a haven to a place struggling with drugs in the 80s to what it is today – safe, but more modernized, less intimate.
When I brought the tomatoes over, she laughed and then a sad look passed over her face. She said, “I bet against Shirley that your garden wouldn’t survive. She’d be so happy to see this.” Shirley lived across the street from me and was Wilma’s dear friend; she passed away earlier this year. While Wilma was convinced the deer would destroy our produce, apparently Shirley had a bit more faith in our skills.
Then, Wilma told me to sit down on her porch, so I did. As an outsider – white and from an entirely different region of the country, to name a few differences – I long to better understand my adopted home and respect its history without appropriating it. That’s why I take any chance I can to listen to Wilma. She welcomes us without pandering; she’s constantly reminding us that the community has responsibilities to us but we have responsibilities to it as well.
Despite her bet, she explained that she’s thrilled our garden is successful. She was particularly proud of us for unknowingly carrying on a great neighborhood tradition – raising our own food. She said that everyone in the neighborhood survived and even thrived during the Depression because they were able to provide for themselves. In fact, our neighborhood’s geography reflects these priorities. The lots are long and narrow because people would have their houses in the front and gardens in the back.
Even when the rest of the town urbanized, she explained that our neighborhood culturally remained in the countryside. Everyone raised chickens and pigs, with animals constantly underfoot. (As someone who has lived in a place with chickens, I empathized.) When the time came for slaughter, the men would dig a giant pit, butcher and roast the pigs, and share the meat. People would frequently go fishing and work up a big fish fry that would also be shared. Unfortunately, when the county passed laws against keeping animals in residential zones, much of this tradition came to a halt. Although current County laws allow raising chickens, no one from the neighborhood has re-adopted it.
The sharing extended to the holidays as well. Every year, one of her neighbors would bring her a bottle of homemade dandelion wine and a rabbit for dinner. Even though she never made it herself, Wilma still has a wine cistern in her basement, which she offered us. As Chris has wanted to dabble in winemaking, I would like to take her up on the offer. Of course, I’ll give her a bottle if it comes out well!
When I told her about inviting the neighborhood kids into my garden, she said that too was traditional. When she was growing up, everyone had fruit trees on their property. It was common for kids to grab a plum or apple on the way home from school, even if the tree was their neighbors. In fact, they considered their one neighbor mean because he sprayed his apples with lime to prevent children climbing his trees. Even now, she said she can’t bring herself to buy blackberries because she remembers gathering them for free.
As our conversation closed, Wilma told me that her sister recently brought her a very old-style dish – pig’s feet. She hadn’t eaten it in nearly 20 years and savored every bite, despite her daughter’s disgust. I mentioned that my great-grandfather would eat pickled pig’s feet, and my mom would freak out whenever she saw them in the fridge. I think it’s one of those “old time” things that people of many cultures eat, and younger generations don’t quite understand. Except for one person in particular I know has an interest in nose-to-tail cooking – Chris. When I told her Chris would be interested in learning the preparation, she was thrilled and said he’d be welcome any time. Even though I’m not personally interested, I’d be proud to see another skill being passed from generation to generation, regardless of the family lineage. Great-Grandpa would be proud.
After listening to her, I’ve been thinking about how I will pass on my gardening skills to future generations. Of course, when Chris and I have kids, I’ll get them involved in the garden. But I’d also like to help revive the neighborhood traditions Wilma described to me. Although I have some knowledge, I’d prefer to draw on the wisdom of trusted neighbors who can also share some historical perspective. Over the winter, I’ll have to consider how best to move forward – through formal workshops, informal help, or some other approach altogether. But I know whatever shape this eventually takes, growing food will help strengthen our neighborhood ties in other important ways, just like old times.
Note: The title of this post comes from one of my favorite bloggers, Slacktivist, who himself is quoting from the Bible (Romans 12). Considering history and revival, it seemed appropriate.