Tending Hands

READ: How the produce aisle looks to a migrant farmworker | Public Radio International

Credit: Mike Blake - Reuters

Vegetables at a Whole Foods Market in La Jolla, California. Much of its produce comes from the state’s Central Valley, where it’s picked by migrant farmworkers. Credit: Mike Blake – Reuters

The fields my family worked required weeding with machetes and garden hoes. I still remember the taste of the pesticides and coughing my throat raw after a crop duster would fly over us and spray. Sometimes I didn’t know if it was sweat or pesticide residue that caused the burned in my 10-year-old eyes. I’m thankful we never picked fruit or vegetables, though my best friend did and he still has problems with his hands to this day. He doesn’t think it’s related to his farmwork as a teenager, but I know better.

There are many life-threatening dangers for children and adults in these fields. This PRI story notes one — that sometimes the people who work the fields cannot even afford the food they tend.

I’m not going to say that I whisper a prayer with each apple I put in my grocery cart, but I often I think about the hands that weeded, picked, and packed the fruit and veggies. I look at the colorful shapes and I calculate the difficulty of tending and picking certain fruits over others. Sometimes the stickers will note from which state the fruits came. My mind forecasts the temperature there. Do they have to bundle up to keep the hot sun off their backs or do they have to wear extra socks to keep their toes from the cold?

At the meat cases I routinely think about the men and women who work in cold meatpacking plants and that they surely cannot afford the meat they process because I certainly can’t. I imagine the assembly line as it moves carcasses through the plant with each worker slicing, cutting, chopping, packaging until the marbled meat reaches my store.

Sometimes I have to push those thoughts and images from my mind because people aren’t supposed to contemplate how their food came to the grocery store and, honestly, sometimes I just need to get out of there.

It’s when I’m at home cooking that I allow my mind to consider the food before me. As I slice onions, cilantro, red and green peppers, as I smash and chop garlic cloves, I thank the hands that brought me this food and I hope they are well.

Of course there are times when food sits in my refrigerator too long and I have to throw out wilting spinach or rubbery carrots. It’s frustrating not just because it’s wasted money but because instead of eating a salad, I ordered a pizza. It’s also disrespectful to those who put their bodies and their beings at risk in order to bring that food to market. I’m literally throwing their efforts in the trash.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have deep thoughts about my food each and every time I walk into the store. It’s only been since I’ve started leading a writers workshop for migrant youth. They make me think, they make me remember. I want to be more mindful about my food, the food they and their families help put on my table.

I try to say hello to the produce workers sorting and stacking the fruit in the store because usually they’re Latinos. Sometimes it’s just a head nod, sometimes they help me pick out the best veggies. Most of the time it’s just me wanting to acknowledge them as fellow farmworkers because … well … they are.

Brown hands tend fruit in the fields, brown hands tend them in the store, and my brown hands tend them at home.


So I was able to visit my mom’s grave and it was wonderful … you know what I mean.

I was surprised to see some artificial flowers at her grave. There were yellow and pink chrysanthemums that my dad and I left when he came to visit. There was also a small bouquet slipped inside the headstone’s metal vase. I don’t know who left them there. As a matter of fact, there have been a few times when I’ve gone to visit and there were flowers at her grave that I didn’t place,

Thank you to the soul who has visited my mom.

I also noticed that the grave site had some of the errant grass trimmed away. No doubt it was the secret visitor’s handiwork. I took out the small broom to sweep away old leaves and grass. From my canvas bag I pulled out some scissors to cut away more wisps of grass that had regrown. As I clipped the dry grass around her grave marker, it reminded me of the times I’d help mom pull weeds from the various gardens from various houses where we lived. I hated doing it because we’d spend all day working in the fields only to come home and work in the garden.

“Look,” I remember saying to her, “pickles.”

“No, those are cucumbers.”

“They look like baby pickles.”

“They are,” she said. “Cucumbers are pickles.”

What? Huh? Cucumbers? I thought about the big pickles from the movie theater that cost fifty cents. I thought about the pickles on the hamburgers that were cut all wavy. I thought of the little pickles my Tia Noche would cut into the tuna.

“See, look, I’ll show you.” she said pinching a few small cucumbers free from their vines. “We’ll take these inside and make pickles.”

After we finished weeding and watering the garden, mom took the almost empty jar of dill pickles out  of the refrigerator. We washed the cucumbers and she slicked them into small circles. She placed them back in the refrigerator and said we would have to wait for them to turn into pickles.

Everyday when we came home from the fields, I’d check the jar. No pickles. Just sliced cucumbers floating in pickle juice. After a while I forgot about the jar until mom called me from whatever I was doing — probably laying on my bed staring at the popcorn ceiling playing a mental game of connect the dots. I did that a lot.

When I got to the kitchen, she held the pickle jar in her hands. The cucumber slices weren’t floating anymore and they weren’t white with dark green borders. They were … pickle colored. I took the jar and opened it. I slid my hand inside grabbing the first slice I could reach. It looked strange. Not floppy like a pickle but not firm like the cucumber slices we’d place in the jar. It smelled like a pickle. I bit into it. It crunched. A vinegary taste spread in my mouth. It was a crunchy pickle. I mean it still kinda had the cucumber taste and look but it was definitely some sort of pickle.

Wow. A food had just turned into another food. How many other foods had I eaten that were other things first?

I took a kitchen sponge from the canvas bag and poured some bottled water over it. I gently began wiping dirt from between the raised lettering on mom’s headstone. I poured some water on the marker and felt a rush of emotion. It’s probably the first time anyone has cleaned her marker. There was also something about cleaning it that made me feel like I was cleaning her when she had mobility problems getting in and out of the bath. I was wiping her face and arms. I was rinsing her feet. I was cleaning her neck and back.

Up until this point I hadn’t said a word aloud or otherwise. Cleaning her marker made me want to talk. I told her about my year. I told her about the blog and how it was good and bad. I told her about how this year I felt both depressed and confident. I told her about my illnesses and down time. I reminded her of the promise I made last year of not wanting to come back to her grave and cry out of desperation and longing.

I removed the plastic flowers placing them in my canvas bag. I filled the vase with fresh red roses. I took all my supplies and put them back in the car which was only a few feet away. I came back to her grave with two dozen roses that I bought for her wedding anniversary in March. I arranged them in a bouquet and let them dry. One by one I gently pulled off the dried rosebud letting the petals float down to her grave. A cold wind was moving in and gently carried the petals in whimsical patterns before letting them settle.

“I should take a picture,” I thought but decided to just let the wind encircle me with petals, let them dance.

It was beautiful to be there in the moment, not recalling the pain of losing her, not anticipating future pain of her absence, and not feeling alone. I don’t know if my mom ever had that sort of moment when it came to her mother. Grandma died young of an aneurysm.

I started to think of how when the end was coming, mom wanted to live. She’d stopped treatment for her cancer because it was painful and, probably because of her pharmacist, it was killing her.

I though about how she wanted to do so much but her body failed her. I thought about the garden. I thought about all the beautiful food she cooked. I thought about how she used food to show us love. I though about how she used food to manage other emotions. I thought about how she taught us the same. There were times we didn’t have any food and it was up to my sisters to make sure we were fed because mom was in such a depression that she couldn’t handle the responsibility and dad … well, he wasn’t around.

I thought about how I want to make the coming year a good one. For that to happen, I need to be able to get around and maneuver comfortably in my skin. I need to be able to wear my clothes instead of pulling on them and fighting them. I need to be more active and less sedentary. I mean, I’m a fat guy and I will probably always be a fat guy. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be healthy. The last year, I haven’t been healthy.

The last year I haven’t been healthy.

#TheLastYear. Healthy.

Standing at my mom’s grave, this blog came back to me.

I started this blog because I was turning 46 and my mom died when she was 47. I wanted to try to experience some of her life in her final year. A year had passed so it was done, right? Well, maybe not.

Maybe the garden, the food, her illness, my desire to move forward maybe mom was trying to tell me that this is the last year to be unhealthy.

So like last year, I knelt at her grave and made a promise. This is the last year I will be unhealthy. Certainly, I’ll get sick. I may even have a trip or two to the doctor in my future but I need to get this under control before it’s too late.

Who knows, if I can begin to manage this par of my life, maybe I can also bring order to the other parts of it.