As my seeds for the season’s gardens cover the entire kitchen table, I think of my neighbor who started it all for me.

The summer when she was 10, Amanda Russell tended her neighbor’s vegetable stand and picked raspberries, earning a percentage of the sales – and coming away with some things less tangible as well. Photo courtesy of Amanda Russell

I grew up in Round Pond, and Big Willie was my neighbor. He was a farmer. When I was 10 years old, he hired me to help him with his vegetable stand, which sat on his front lawn.

Every morning, I walked down the road to meet him at his garden, which sat between his farm and our house. There, he and I would pull carrots and pick cucumbers and cut heads of lettuce, harvesting the day’s offerings to sell. Before heading to his house, where I would tend the stand for the rest of the day, I stayed at the garden a while longer to pick raspberries when they were in season. Big Willie said I was an expert raspberry picker, because I reached deep in between the prickly canes to get every ripe berry. My arms got scratched and sometimes my face, too, and once I hit a wasp nest that landed me more than a few stings, but I returned the next day after Big Willie had burned the nest.

At the end of each day, he and I sat on the porch to count the money, and every day he would pay me 5 percent of the total vegetable sales plus 10 percent of the raspberry sales. That summer, I earned enough money to buy my family a full-color TV and my first store-bought dress from the Sears & Roebuck catalog.

But I earned something else that summer, or maybe Big Willie gave me something else for free. He said that just like me, the plants needed room to grow, and I learned to love weeding. He said they got thirsty just like me, and I worked endlessly to lug the water they needed. He said that a little dirt on a carrot never hurt anyone, and I just wiped the carrot on my shirt to clean it well enough before chomping it down. I loved my dirty garden hands. I loved the dirt, itself, marveling at how a tiny seed could turn into a 20-foot vine or a cornstalk practically twice as tall as me.

Big Willie died in his potato patch on a hot summer day many years later. The land was his home, after all, where he lived and where he died. These 50 years later, I am that same 10-year-old, growing food, tending big gardens, putting up – all with the same joy and wonderment and sense of belonging to this earth that Big Willie gifted me.

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