A story about my Mother, Jill Myers
written by Madison Myers
I grew up on a goat farm. Every late February when the greyed Virginian mountains began to slush down into the gutters and the red clay bled into the tired snow, my mother would produce a thick Burpee seeds catalog. As we grew bored of the cold, my sister and I would pore over the catalog, planning in a detailed and meticulous manner. We’d sketch out our dream garden plots -- the ones devoid of reason and regional sensibilities. Avocado trees and orange trees and towering sunflowers, it was our own dream castle built of green. Then we’d sit down with mama for more practical planning. We’d write down the list -- the purple carrots this year, because that’s more fun, the squash and tomatoes of course, watermelon if it doesn’t frost too late, and basil, but let’s just get those at tractor supply.
My mother grew a boisterous vegetable garden every year, in the back yard’s tiny plot when I was young, and when my three younger siblings were born and growing, in the front yard plot where my father cleared and built expansive vegetable beds for her. My mother also focused personal attention on her little side-garden, an herb garden filled with thyme and rosemary and roses and blackberry and stevia -- all the extravagances of local, tangible beauty filling her own little dream-space. As soon as the baby goats arrived bloodily and bleating in the early days of the spring, my mother filled her days with life from sunrise to sundown. Milking in the morning and evening, weeding mid-morning, cooking for us, feeding us, and loving us with a hard and unspoken practicality devoid of pretension or romance. She fed us so we would grow. She created our food with her own sweat and effort because she wanted it to be good for us.
Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, this was not neuroticism -- it was love. It was her expression of affection and gratitude. The baby goats would frolic with us in the garden as me and my sister spent late afternoons weeding with our mother, the red clay staining our fingernails and toes as we popped warm cherry tomatoes into our mouths, grumbling about wanting to finish the most recent Harry Potter and giggling every time we saw an earth worm wriggling above the surface of the soil like a fish out of water.
It was around this time that I started having the dream. I’ve had the same repeating dream since I was very little. I’m laying on my back, floating down a clear stream peppered with sand-colored pebbles and glinting trout. Trees and plants drape over and spill over into the stream as I move. They are fruit trees, oranges and apricots and plums and shapes and colors I don’t even recognize. The first time I remember having the dream I must have been four or five. I thought I had seen heaven or Eden. When I was that young, my relationship with food was simple. I was not yet aware of all the larger implications surrounding food and health, money, inequality, culture, and industry. Food was good, food was dinner-time when my mom honked the car horn, signaling me to come home from my cousins. I always picked dusty blackberries on the side of the gravel road on my way back.
It wasn’t until I was about eight that I realized that food was a much more complicated subject. I realized it was a crucial part of a very different reality for other people, although I struggled and still struggle to fully empathize with varied experiences. At that point I started public school. My mother and father would take turns carefully crafting our breakfast and lunch at 6 A.M. every morning. Always a light sleeper, the sound of the coffee grinder would wake me up at 6:20 promptly. My parents never prioritized making our lunches resemble the packaged, brightly wrapped versions of “kid-friendly food” that I often saw my other friends eating at school. If we had bean soup for dinner, that’s what we had for lunch the next day. My clunky L. L. Bean lunchbox and thermos often embarrassed me when I saw my other friends toss the remains of their meals made up of fruit-roll ups and lunchables. Their decisions of sustainability did not come from purely environmental or nutritious concerns, but a level of practicality and frankness about our own value and place as individuals who deserved to be treated, and fed, as equals.
We were never a clean-plate family, mostly because we never had to be. We were required to try everything, and food modifications were never really an option. I noticed soon my friends who bought lunches -- the publicity of who had to pay for their lunch and who did not was apparent even to us eight year olds. I didn’t understand why, but it confused me as to why some parents wouldn’t pack their children food. I guess they can afford to pay, I thought, mistaking an institutional fault-break as a luxury.
It wasn’t until I was older that I started to know and understand a little bit more about my mother’s own relationship with food. She grew up in the suburbs surrounding Dallas, Texas, in a family of eight. Like us, they always had vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Her earliest and fondest memories of Texas and her family revolve around that. Her parents, both born during the wake of the Great Depression, were shaped by frugality and difficult financial circumstances. They created this garden because it was practical. Things were tight, and they were on food stamps at several points during her childhood. Her father had polio as a child and worked as an accountant, and although his mobility was limited to his wheelchair, weeding the garden was a point of physical labor and familial congregation outside of athletics or other demanding activities.
She would then move to Virginia at a young age to marry my father, a dashingly handsome and sensitive yet bold young man. Then I came along. My father’s family was large and energetic, much like hers, but there was a different context that shifted everything. It was the context of privilege, of generational wealth, of elite college degrees and the kind of unconscious relaxation of existence that is primarily privy to white and wealthy Americans. It unsettled her, but it also gave her a new kind of emotional slack, enough space to explore new interests. She planted a garden. She spent her days with her tiny, roly-poly daughter, becoming friends with my father’s sisters and their group of inspiring friends, and making her new house a home. Soon, the second baby came along, Nancy Ariadne. When I was about six and my sister was still a toddler, my parents decided that they wanted to build a barn and start raising goats. It was a daunting project, but I remember standing outside, helping my father carefully place the stones of the rock foundation. They were both determined to build a life of solid and tangible goodness for their children.
When it was finished, we got dairy goats. They were beautiful and glossy and bug-eyed and loud. In the spring, my mom let me and my sister name the first boy kid we got. We chose Ansel. Ansel was a uniquely glossy-red and spunky and smelly, and we loved him. In the fall, my father would eventually later that year turn Ansel into an incredible curried stew. We would miss Ansel for a few weeks, but eventually new baby goats would fill his place. My sister and I would have conversations with our parents at a very young age about meat factories, animal suffering, and the choices and consequences of emotional disconnection at the grocery store. Nan and I were six and eight respectively, our toddler brother of two enthusiastically joining the dinner debate by banging his spoon against his tall wooden high-chair. When I later told my friends at school this story, they were mortified. I didn’t understand their concern. Did they eat processed ham and American cheese sandwiches every day?
Aside from that experience, I loved growing up with goats. It was a formidable amount of work though, especially considering my father’s busy schedule and my mom’s never-ending to-do list as a mother of four rowdy children. My mother would spend hours daily milking, cheese-making and caring for the goats, my father spent many sweaty Saturdays cleaning stalls, deworming, and cleaning hoofs. Meanwhile, us kids were always expected to help, which we did to the best of our ability, albeit occasional grumbling about goat poop and being head-butted. The reward of my mother’s legendary soft goat cheese with honey at the end of a Saturday morning filled with work always made it worth it.
As we grew up, my mother’s interests and focus expanded. When I was 13, she enrolled in an Italian Studies course at UVA that participated in a summer trip abroad. She fell in love with the connection that the people had between themselves, their land and community, and their food. She became fast friends with a Sicilian woman who later became a valued business partner. Orsola, her friend, had recently acquired an overgrown but deeply established olive grove. My mother learned about the production and the ritualistic sacredness of the olive tree within the Italian culture. As her kids became older, she was able to take more trips to the Mediterranean area and the one commonality soon became so clear to her -- the olive tree was ever-present, a stability and necessity that seemed to transcend both time and social status. The olive tree belonged to whoever needed it. It centered communities and was a cornerstone of dietary health, it was implemented into religious ceremonies and beauty rituals. She always brought us back some oil, making us taste it with a wide, concave soup spoon. Once her friend began production of her Sicilian oil, my mom agreed to import a small amount to the U.S. for her -- a small decision that brought her a large amount of joy with the knowledge that for the first time in a long time, she had something that was completely her own.
The year I left for college, my mom began a sommelier course at the New York Culinary Institute. My mother threw herself into her work and education, slowly building connections in the states and abroad. She began representing, importing, distributing and selling olive oil and olive oil products for a number of small companies. Although larger brands and names became options for her, she chose to stay in the community of small producers and nurturing, personal business relationships. She chose to educate in small groups, and to meet face-to-face with the chefs and consumers who want her producers’ oils. She became a true ambassador of olive oil and to this day, implements a pace of culinary gratitude and dignity that is often not practiced within the U.S. She conducts business with the same amount of care, gravitas, and perseverance that she creates food for her family.
The summer after my first year of college, I was eager to spread my wings. I had just begun studying French and Politics, and my degree of wanderlust was nearly palpable. I had spent my spring break studying maps and devouring my mother’s treasured collection of travel books. I needed something new. “I’ll go anywhere,” I said to my mom. My mother had a connection with an olive oil producer in Portugal who had several large, untamed olive groves and two toddlers. Marije and her husband Gui had met in Marijie’s hometown of Amsterdam and within a few years of having children decided to uproot their life of comfort in the city to go south to Portugal to start producing olive oil. I skyped with them once before booking a plane ticket to Lisbon, with the agreement that I would provide an extra set of hands in exchange for a place to stay and the experience of interning for their farm and restaurant businesses.
I was 18, knew four words of Portuguese, and had never travelled alone before. My mom didn’t lecture me about safety or drinking or boys, she simply told me to be good and told me that she loved me before driving off with the same confidence and nonchalance that she had when driving off after college drop-off.
I carried her confidence like a shield as I flew across the world and navigated the Portuguese railway system to find a train to Coimbra. I started the flight with my anxieties wound so tightly around my heart I thought it might burst, but the further I got into my journey, the tightness loosened, and my anxieties lessened. I noted the gnarled olive trees and casual Roman ruins that dotted the Portuguese countryside, and the haphazard orange tree that an unshaven, handsome Portuguese man languidly smoked under outside the first train stop. It was incredible. I could feel the stories around me and the power of being in a place where people had stories and spaces that dated back thousands of years amazed me. America might be brand new and shiny, but under the veneer lies the truth that it was created by the destruction and subjugation of two minority groups -- the Native Americans and enslaved black people.
I soon got to Marije and Gui’s farm -- a gorgeous villa with ivy spilling over every windowsill, with wild roses everywhere and a fully functional Roman aqueduct running through the farm. The groves of gnarled trees were neatly cared for by Marije and Gui and their focused labor of love for their land. Marije was going to teach me to drive the tractor, an endeavor that proved more difficult than either of us realized, as I had only driven automatic cars before. We soon settled into a content existence of me working with Marije from sun-up to lunch in the olive groves, and me taking care of the children while Marije and Gui ran errands or continued farm labor in the afternoons. I loved it. The exercise cleared my mind, and the small, adorable, trilingual children brought me laughter and joy. For a 18 year old girl, settling into a simplified existence brought me a kind of peace that I hadn’t experienced since I was little, working in the garden with my mom.
A few weeks into my stay, my nineteenth birthday arrived. Late into the day, I received a phone call from a friend. I was slightly satisfied that someone had chosen to brave international data fees in order to hear my voice rather than the much more popular method of sending me a Whatsapp message. The reality of the phone call was much different. One of my best friends whom I had grown up with had passed a few hours earlier. Grief struck me hard. I couldn’t even begin to conceptualize the loss.
Marije found me and hugged me as I sobbed. She didn’t have many words. My phone was filled with messages of well-intentioned, empty words, but words were not any kind of helpful consolation. Her stoicism and understanding reminded me so much of my mother. She just held me. Hours later, I still sat in that same place on the steps where I had received the phone call. Marije brought me a plate of cheese and olives and fruit. “Food,” she stated simply. I appreciated that she didn’t coax me to eat, or ask me to speak, or ask me to step out of the place of grief that I was inhabiting. The familiarity of the gesture calmed me. It was a simple reality of that moment, in that time, in that community, in that place. I was there, there was food. I was going to be alright. Soon, I went to my room, bringing the little plate with me, laying on my back on the floor. I ate the olives, not for comfort or joy or nutrition, but simply because I was hungry.
The next day was a hurried day full of international calls and me passing mirrors quickly as to not see my embarrassingly swollen face. I had to decide whether I wanted to cut my trip short or not. I eventually decided to stay, an instinct that proved to be correct. The day after, I woke up at sunrise and went out into the olive grove. The tall grass was dewy, the dogs were still asleep in the shed, and Marije was standing, surveying her little kingdom. She looked both strong and vulnerable, her wide-brimmed hat pulled low and her hands on her hips, a combination of determination and hope in her eyes that reminded me so much of my mother. She looked over and saw me standing there, and without a word, she knew exactly what I needed. “The pruners are over by the tractor. You can start on the back row,” she said, with an encouraging nod.
I picked up the pruners, brushing the fire-ants from the tall grass off my sleeve. I began pruning the last row, starting with the largest tree. As I began my task, my mind cleared for a moment, and I breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for the tree.
Jill in Sicily
About the author : Madison Myers (USA) is the oldest daughter of Jill Myers, founder and CEO of Women in Olive Oil. She is a talented young writer, and had collaborated many times with her university school paper.