by Tricia Stearns
I slid the debit card through the hole of a large plexus-glass window. The movie attendant’s large, watermelon earrings dangled below her bleached hair and full, round face; the little seeds in the earrings picked up her black roots shining through the blonde bob, as her hand swiped my card.
My 14-year-old, Julia, shifted her weight hip to hip. It was August in Georgia. The heat radiated from my body and made my head throb. I anticipated the cool air conditioning, the chocolates in my purse, and Julia grabbing my hand during the scary parts of the summer blockbuster.
The attendant leaned closer to the microphone. “Ma’am. Maybe try another card.” I slid another card to her. She leaned even closer and said in a loud voice, “Your card has been declined. Next!”
Julia looked at me with an “I can’t believe you” stare. She stepped out of line and turned; her tall legs strode to the car. Julia, my sweet baby girl who used to snuggle and read with me—who turned up the radio and out sung me while carpooling to elementary school, sat in my office afterschool and colored while I talked on the phone to clients—decided that summer that I was an unfit mother.
Thank goodness going broke isn’t a crime or I would be in jail. For over 15 years I’d successfully sold houses, and I took the fall of the real estate market personally. It was 2008, and suddenly, I couldn’t sell a thing.
I had accumulated plaques on my office walls with brass etchings: million-dollar club, 100% club, and Gold level this or that. Each plaque secured my ego as sole provider of my hen house. I was tall, with big hair, wore good suits and expensive pumps: I knew my town, my business, and could work any room from the closing table to the parent teacher conference. I felt successful, attractive, trustworthy. I commanded my post as a top-producing agent, securing the best deal for happy families so they could sprawl in front of their new plasma TVs in their stucco McMansions. But slowly, with gradual warning, my account payables exceeded my account receivables.
There were signs: clients not able to sell their homes, mortgage companies going out of business, builders going bankrupt. I rationalized. I listened to motivational messages on CDs, webinars, and old how to sell tapes from my attic. I just needed to send more postcards out. Run a few more adds. Take a new glamor shot. Sales, however, did not improve. I started searching the want ads for another job.
Wanted: SWF and mother of three girls longs for her listings to sell so she can continue to send two to college, buy the right jeans for the youngest—hell, pay the mortgage, occasionally eat, and go to the gym.
House prices declined, my debit cards declined. My self-esteem declined. My relationships with my three girls declined.
Later that fall before the temperatures cooled, Julia decided to blow off the mean girls, the bill collectors who called our house, and me. With her sisters in college she felt so alone, so she moved across town to live with her dad, who at the time, was flush with cash and lived in a posh town home close to a new school. He re-married—a lovely blonde and former Miss Wisconsin with a cheerleader daughter the same age as Julia. Julia paved her own way quickly down the halls of high school and did not need the aid of her stepsister’s cheerleading skirt. They formed a social alliance that made popular girls jealous and shy girls hopeful.
Meanwhile I took on the bill collectors. At first I dodged them, then I consolidated a few bills, robbing one balance to pay another. I had an income problem. My budget was based on selling two to three houses a month, but I was closing one every other month. I took on some odd jobs just to eat and buy cheap wine, but I refused to let my community and base of business see me waiting tables or handing them a cup of coffee. Instead, I rented out one of the girls’ rooms to a young executive; luckily he paid cash and was never there. I borrowed money from my boyfriend and worried about how I would repay him. I felt like the scrubbing bubbles guy being flushed down the toilet of life. I turned off cable. My neighbors asked me to watch their dogs or house sit. I cooked and cleaned for a sweet, elderly couple; but when I had to place the husband on the toilet and help clean him, I knew it was time for a new plan. I had a degree in English for God’s sakes. I bet Virginia Woolf never wiped an old man’s butt.
I researched the average salary of a high school English teacher and learned that I needed a master’s degree to earn 400 dollars more a month. If I cut out a few bottles of wine, that 400 dollars could be my monthly grocery money. However, I didn’t really want to teach high school students how to write research papers—that would require more wine. I’d always wanted to write creatively, but that would not pay the bills either. I wanted to feel alive, to feel passionate again, and, if possible, to obtain a reliable income and medical insurance.
At 48 years old, I entered the master’s program in creative writing at Kennesaw State University, which was 56 miles away, door to door. Since gas was over $4.00 a gallon, I did not see the campus—sprawled out with more buildings than parking—until the first night of class. Some guy with a ponytail had the nerve to cut me off and take my parking space. “How dare you!” I shouted out my window. “I’m old enough to be your mother.” He flipped me off.
My fellow students were already English teachers in their late 20s and early 30s trying to boost their income. Many had babies, most had tattoos, and they all had talent in their own minds. I landed a teaching assistant position in the anthropology department, which paid my tuition for the not-sure-what-the-hell-I’m-going-do-with-it degree. I assisted two classes with 234 students in each class, passed out standardized tests, graded them, and entered the scores into the student database. Tuesdays and Thursdays were long days: I often left the house at 5:30 a.m.
Close to eleven thousand miles later (10,752 to be exact), I took a class on the art of research. We were required to choose a subject worthy of a future thesis topic. I thought about how organic vegetables were a luxury in my current grocery budget, which was about forty dollars a week. Saturdays I would take Julia on picnics, selling her the idea that it was fun to eat peanut butter and jelly under the trees. I took my own tea bags to the student center while I waited for my evening classes. Thus, my topic included poverty among single women, organic produce, local farmers, and ways to eat healthy on a severe budget.
One thing led to another: my own suburban community had no farmers market, so I pitched the idea of starting a market to city officials. I visualized white tents popped and primed every Saturday in a shopping center that had a big box dinosaur in the middle of it. My research showed that many communities re-vitalize sagging downtowns by offering a weekly market highlighting local farmers and food produced by entrepreneurs. I got the green light verbally but still went through the formal steps of writing an ordinance and presenting it to the City Council. It passed, allowing for a weekly market with 80% of the vendors being food providers (one of the council members feared it would turn into a flea market without this stipulation).
Next I looked for farmers for my new market and soon realized that the issue was bigger than I thought: there are not enough small farmers in my community (as well as the rest of the country). With a list of small farms in surrounding counties, I drove down dirt roads where my GPS failed to offer service. I searched for farms with names like Double M, Two Doves, and farms with no name—walking in fields and waving down workers who looked like they had produce to sell. At one farm, three guys in overalls (grandfather, father, and son) met me at their gate holding shotguns. At another, I picked rows of okra while trying to convince a farmer to join my market. Most farmers already attended large markets in Atlanta, some of them driving 90 miles one-way. There they sold their eggs for $6.00 a dozen and their grass fed beef for $5.50 a pound—high for our area. Most produced crops on five acres or less. Eventually I found five farmers who would give my market a try two times a month.
I designed a logo, went to the printer, and made t-shirts. I talked on radio shows, describing the plethora of fresh food headed our way—why it was different from the fancy grocery store.
The first Saturday we had over 800 people, and farmers sold out by 11 a.m.
That was in 2010. In 2014 we now have over 50 vendors, 27 of them farmers. We’ll have auditions in the spring for musicians who want to play each Saturday and for vendors who claim to make the best jelly or hot sauce. We have over 1,400 people visit each Saturday during high season, and the market goes year round, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
I listen to the challenges each farmer faces week-to-week—from broken tractors, to issues related to an industrial food system. Many weeks I visit farms; I observe chickens being plucked by the farmer’s 8-year daughter, or I dig for sweet potatoes or share a meal at their table. I feel a connection to the food movement and see now that there are many more challenges for farmers markets and the clean food movement than I ever realized. Through all this I have become a food activist.
Julia went on a mission trip to Swaziland, Africa where she helped build a garden. When she returned she helped me research how to build a community garden. Julia went off to college, but our summer of talking to area gardeners connected us to a bigger cause and served to heal our broken relationship.
While planting sweet peas at his farm, I bonded with a truly unique farmer and his wife who helped plan the actual building of the garden. The couple did the research on the soil needs and made a healthy donation to the cause. I got the city to donate the site and allow us to develop the biggest community garden in the Atlanta area.
I formed a new non-profit organization and, with the farmer and a handful of volunteers, built 145 eight-by-twenty plots. Currently, we have over 240 gardeners and a waiting list. Some families share a plot, scout troops grow together, and a local chef tends herbs for his sauces.
In my personal life, things improved. My daughters and I learned how to plan events in parking lots; we grew wiser with money, and excelled at the art of living large with less. When my eldest got married, we created the flower arrangements for the reception; my middle daughter landed a job in ministry at the end of an internship. Julia started college and poured her heart into serving the homeless, at-risk teens and dedicated her summers to working at a camp for teenage girls. I re-married, and I continued to wear the many hats of Realtor, community activist, writer. We grew tall and leaned on each other like the sunflowers guarding my tomatoes. Then—as things can, and often do—life changed in an instant.
Last summer, Julia died in a car accident. She forgot to put her car in park and jumped in to save her car—her precious new, used car. Julia was pinned by the door and wedged in a weird way that even the firefighters have a hard time explaining. When I got to the hospital, there were tubes in her nose and mouth, and blood all over her shirt, her farmers market t-shirt. People from all over the city prayed for her in our community garden. We prayed for a miracle. We did not get ours, but others did; Julia saved over 58 lives with her donated organs.
Right now I know that my heart is broken. But I cling to hope. What started as a new career path created momentum for a lot of small farmers, food artists, and my family. There is a pig farmer who now does nothing but produce chemical free pork and attend five markets—his pork was used at the Governor’s Inaugural BBQ. There is a goat farmer who produces fresh goat cheese that is now in five restaurants. Approximately three million dollars a year is added to my county’s economy.
The community garden has created friendships between folks who normally would not give each other the time of day: Pete, a retired veteran from New York, nods to a woman from Japan who speaks little English. They pick cherry tomatoes together, and she brings him veggie rolls to thank him for his help.
There is a primal connection between all humans when it comes to our very basic needs and emotions: Food. Air. Water. Love. Grief. Sometimes we lose our connection: I know that in my own financial stress, I was disconnected from what is really important.
And when you are faced with unexpected tragedy—when you can’t breathe with such emotional pain, your heart is coated with empathy and knowledge of a universe larger than your small world.
What you think is the end is often another beginning. I know I am faced with another beginning: farmers and neighbors know each other, strangers gather over soil and form friendships. My family stands holding hands with no words needed. Today, I harvest hope.
Tricia Stearns is a storyteller at heart and currently lives and writes in Peachtree City, Georgia. She writes about food and family and gives presentations on sustainable living initiatives to various civic groups. She is currently working on a book of true stories. For more, go to www.tstearnsblog.com.
Homepage image courtesy Peachtree City Farmers Market