“It’ll all come at once, or at least seem that way,” my dad informed me late July in reference to his raspberries. But everything had already started coming. Spinach, lettuce, kale, peas, beans, and broccoli spilled across the summer months, all of which I shared with anyone who caught my gaze. More notes kept coming too. I had taken to asking for scratch paper and pens at the gym when an idea caught me on the elliptical. I scrounged for old napkins in my glove compartment and receipts in my purse. On long walks with Solo, I wrote texts and saved them as drafts in my phone. The words were crinkled, sweaty, dog eared and mine.
In wavering heat, I watched my dad hoe between the straight rows just shy of the shadow our aging cow barn cast. Had he looked across the familiar landscape, it might have evoked once again his memories of his visits to Guatemala, the wash of color in a sunrise across the lake and the bent over men creeping up hillsides to their own corn rows.
“Find me a stick,” he assigned my most common task like the ones Guatemalan women gave me, jobs for children, “to mark the vegetable rows.”
I smiled thinking of looms, my weaving teacher, Cantel prepared for me after she sent me out walking to look for sticks for my loom. She didn’t have extras.
I was gardening because I couldn’t deny the vast stores of my father’s knowledge I had ignored while chasing academic puzzles. From his own retellings, he had a spare few teachers who thought he was worth their time. It was hard not to take that personally. In the end, that was the turning point for me in Guatemala. If I could go so far and put forth such effort for strangers, why wasn’t it worth the same for my family? It was. In a different situation a girlfriend could have come alongside me and say I was giving too much. I was, and I was, done.
“I didn’t get the interview,” I told him. I was on dirty hands and knees, barely visible in the corner of the garden that held peppers and tomatoes.
“Don’t give up,” he said unfazed, as if my words needed a trench for the soil to absorb them as water.
His straight corn rows bowed over. I glanced over to the now withered pea vines atop his year’s achievement, a metal fence that helped the snow peas to stand tall. Unbeknownst to me, because we never talked about farming or gardening then, that idea came from his observation of the metal fencing rolling past his airport shuttle in Guatemalan fields.
“I hit all the bullet points on the job description, but I’ve just. Just been gone too long.” Also, my job search seemed to indicate a stigma on teacher divorcees or that I needed a lot of work on defining what a teacher was on my resume.
“And teaching? Back in a classroom.” he said.
“It isn’t that I’m not interested in teaching. I am more interested than ever before, but not in their content and all the checkboxes and red tape. And, I’d be starting over.” I knew, but didn’t explain my lack of interest in tech that I dominated the curriculum and the ever tightening knots I couldn’t stop from forming because I suspected classroom priorities didn’t include valuing mine. I attempted to rub dirt from my skin without water. “I can’t. After the past ten years, I can’t,” I added.
“You did a lot. Then it was time to come home,” he replied so matter of factly, flatly in fact, and void of the kind of passion that crept in when referencing challenges to his own dreams. He espoused often about roaring gravel truck that woke him up at night or the very same monopolizing seed companies that caused riots in the neighboring village of Sololá from farmers.
“I don’t know. I guess because even though it seemed from the outside, I was doing so much, I still felt lonely. It wasn’t that Guatemala, the work, everything, wasn’t enough,” which is what I’d worried about all along. “It was that so much time dedicated to only work, wasn’t enough for me anymore.”
“It seems strange I came to see you there, but despite all the things you went through, I’m not sorry I got to see it.” He shrugged and turned away from me continuing to hoe the peppers that barely needed his care anymore.
All year I had been taking note of the shifting light. When it slowly dawned earlier. When it took much longer for me to feel the warmth. For a while, I had more time. Now I had less again. I had lived my teacher lives one more time through the past year in fast forward. My professional life passed before my eyes, and here I was in the garden looking at the gaping hole where the pea plants had once been and reliving my dad’s triumph of the fence that thwarted a tangled mass of pea plant. Each step I took towards learning to teach had appeared to be on a straight path, but looking back I saw only one circle.
“At the end I couldn’t get that Janis Joplin quote you like to say out of my head. ‘Every night I make love to 10,000 people and go home alone.’” Education talked a lot about relationships, but teaching became a very lonely profession, at least for me. Finding balance in a relationship between helping and controlling was hard enough in a personal sense, but maintaining form as the sliver of me my students wanted, colleagues could stand or the system demanded no longer was enough to support the effort.
“You should pull some of your potatoes. They’re great for potato salad right now. Creamers.”
I knew that. He’d been mentioning it for months. It reminded me of the Guatemalan staff that told the same story over and over again on the bus when we travelled, laughing as heartily each and every time.
“You know.” He came up next to me. “You always stay too long.”
Maybe, I considered, but once teachers get married to the institution of education, they buy a house and stay married to it. I had said this before to my Peace Corps supervisor. Still, if nothing else, the experience over the past year taught me that I could still love teaching, as long as I wasn’t married to the institution. Lots of couples got divorced and stayed in each other’s lives. Maybe my choice wasn’t a divorce, but a means to even the give and take in the relationship, a sort of trial separation. A relationship is compromise, I was sure I heard on a talk show somewhere, but it should not require me to automatically give up who I am for what I think the other person wants. Maybe the definition of that role was like my blurred memory of my mother teaching me, something to slave for, something to worry over, but in the end, only in my head. In reality, my mom had been gone a long time.
The cracks from the dryness showed in the trenches my Dad had so carefully constructed. The cool water hit directly where it was needed most. He would have to return and do the exact same thing the next day if it didn’t rain. I watched as Solo pulled at the end of his rope, trying to chase chickens in the yard.
“Don’t pay attention to that dog. You’ve got broccoli to pick. It’s still coming. As long as you cut the heads, it will keep coming.” He threw me a folded up paper bag.
I awkwardly handled his clippers until my pockets bulged with the florets. I tripped slightly exiting the row and dumped everything into the old grocery bag. I moved his bag to the edge of the cement foundation and sat on a tipped over bucket until he joined me in the shade under the barn roof.
“It’s great, you know, that you take all that stuff to share.”
“It’s been fun.”
“Your presence reminds me of when you were a little girl, always asking for one more story when you would find me in the raspberry patch. You had spunk.”
Seeing I was engaged, he continued, “I was watching you and some other kids at a meeting your mother was at. There was this little boy who was walking around, pushing other kids down so he could take their toys.”
“What? Seriously? How old?”
“Ofir’s age. Probably two years old. You saw him coming. First, you climbed up on a step so you were higher. When he got to you, you put your doll behind you. Then, you pushed him down.”
I snorted. Memories of me like that, undaunted by others’ expectations, were feathered and paper thin, but the pages existed, and I could resew them together.
My dad cupped his hand so that Solo could nuzzle his head and indulge in my dad’s fingernails. “He started to cry. The women came in from the other room.”
“Did you tell them?”
“No. I just said the boy fell and would be fine.” He paused. “I never told your mother. She wouldn’t have been pleased I let you do that, but I was proud of you.” He smiled broadly and all the wrinkles around his eyes had hills and trenches like the garden. “You had spunk”.
“You know you did a lot for me.”
“Your mom read to you. I would have never thought of it.”
“No. All the play and song, did as much as Mom reading aloud, and more than you realized.”
My dad pulled a piece of string cheese from his pocket and both dogs at his feet perked their ears. The first piece he dropped, Bagel snatched. Solo stood up slowly. My dad held his outstretched hand for at least the count of five before Solo started to make his way over.
“Fine,” I sighed. I needed to accept that Solo didn’t want the cheese as much as I wanted it for him. If he was hungry, he would fight for the cheese.
“I just can’t believe how brave you and your brother are. I just couldn’t go that far,” my dad had repeated often.
I had been paralyzed by each and every one of my choices. As a teacher I was sent out like a missionary into a professional unknown without an understanding of the words to define who I was, an identity that was not only supposed to feed me, but to fulfill me and everyone who came in contact with me. I had gone back and forth between believing that the issue was a lack of mentor, a lacking mission, and mostly something missing in me. Although I had travelled far for fifteen years since graduation, my heart never really went anywhere at all. Upon closer observation, the walls had been nothing more than tightly woven strings. Even now, unemployed again, I hadn’t quit being a teacher.
I knew things didn’t always work out. People were disappointed easily and often. In the fairy tale I wrote on a bed in Guatemala covered in dog hair, I had fractured my character into prisms. The pages once wedding white had been ripped apart, but resewn.
My dad tilted his head and looked right at me. “It’s almost August. What do you want for your birthday?”
“A job?” Everyone believed that the right opportunity would come along when I least expected it. Love at first sight? It was so cliché. At thirty seven I would not be old, but I had lived too many teacher lives to guard the simplistic dream of just one happy ending.
About the Author: Erin Conway
I’m an experienced classroom teacher, nonprofit staff trainer and curriculum designer who has worked both locally and abroad. My experiences focus specifically on literacy, both promoting a love of reading across cultures as well as constructing connections between diverse texts and learners from preschool to adult readers. Professional interests include coaching educators in a variety of contexts, program design and outreach. I currently work with UW Extension Rock County as a Youth Development educator. My primary social platforms are Facebook and Linked In. My blog can be found at erinconway.com. Previous publishing credits include the Midwest Review, The Sonder Review, Vine Leaves Press, The Hopper and Adelaide Literary Magazine.