Longing for the Agrarian Past, or How Bad is Typhus, Really?

On Thursday, I came home from work to find my elementary age kids in my bed eating Pez leftover from Halloween and playing video games on their Kindles. This threw a switch in me from the default “Thankful for Antibiotics and Not Dying in Childbirth” to “Modern Life Absolutely Intolerable — Prefer Typhus.” Somewhere deep under my ribs, an underused gland began to secrete Longing-for-the-Agrarian-Past. You know, that time when kids were churning butter, delivering calves, smoking corncob pipes, driving tractors, and getting up to adorable capers like cutting school to go fishing (from which they always learned Valuable Life Lessons). In short, Little House on the Prairie meets Mayberry minus the problematic racial stuff.

I jam my old lady gardening hat on my head like a pith helmet, tighten the chinstrap, and say, loudly enough for the babysitter to hear, that we’re all going outside to work in the garden. I march outside and begin fighting with a big black hose that’s unreasonably stuck on the corner of a planter box. My four kids, ages 7, 7, 5 and 3 try complaining about how hot it is. It’s 82. This isn’t hot, I snap. In Alabama, where I grew up WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING, it’s like 95 and 1,000% humidity.

I huff over to a row of beans to find some of them have been mutilated by some fucking Midwestern varmint. A mole, a vole, a muskrat, a gopher, a woodchuck? Why are there so many lumpy, interchangeable brown animals around here? I snatch out those beans and a few others that aren’t going to work out for one reason or another. Some have opened without leaves, like defective party poppers. I yank the anemic baby squash the kids planted in a cup at the local nature center, too. It’s just lucky there are no weepy-eyed stray kittens around for me to drown in the creek.

I glance up to find Daniel, 7, slinking back towards the air conditioned house. Nope, nope, nope. “I’m just getting water!” he complains. “Drink from the hose!” I say, regretting that we don’t have a well with a pump handle and a tin cup tied to it with string. Our hose has a spray attachment on it and cannot be drunk from without pressure washing one’s tonsils. Oh well, problem solving skills.

Scarlett, also 7, is supposed to be watering the tomatoes but is instead spraying water towards the sun in a fine mist to make rainbows. Her long golden hair is trailing down her back, bare feet splayed in the grass, blue eyes wide with wonder. Sure, it’s cute, but it’s useless, and we don’t have time for uselessness out here on the frontier. Disgust for the child-led, cilantro munching, $40 sustainable acacia wood tambourine crowd wells up in my gizzard. “Scarlett, the tomatoes!” I say.

The three year old, Avery, is the best worker I have. Unfortunately, her watering can holds about 16 ounces and she spills half of that on her way to the zinnias. Also, she has to stop every 3–4 minutes to pick up a slug, locate a stray nursery pot, fill it with leaves, try to insert the slug, scold it mercilessly for sticking to her finger, scrape it off on a leaf, name it, and then commentate its adjustment to its new surroundings. I leave her alone because at least she’s into dirt and sweating and yelling, and that’s what this gardening thing is all about.

I can’t find the clippy things to clip the tomatoes to the trellises. I can never find them. Ever. I smack around in my wet plastic flip flops for a few minutes, listening to Daniel complain about how the spray nozzle is giving him a hand cramp. “Gardening is work,” I say, stopping to pick baling twine from between my toes.

My husband walks out, fresh off a Zoom call and looking like he hasn’t been wrestling hoses and yelling at kids. “How’s it going?” he asks, skeptically. “Great!” I bark, with faux heartiness. Just singlehandedly holding back the tide of digital serfdom and general moral decay, obviously. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Lauren, 5, disappearing into the house, leaving the sliding door open. She’s going to wash her hands again because “she hates dirt.” Whose kids are these?

My husband says something about having left a flash drive at his parents and needing to go get it. “What’s for dinner?” I counter, irritably. He doesn’t know. Of course he doesn’t know. That’s my point. “Just get those pot stickers from Costco out of the freezer, would you?”

This momentary lapse of attention is enough for the kids to have screwed off and started enthusiastically mixing grass clippings, potting soil, and rocks into a “stew” that I’ll later have to dump in the woods because it’ll smell like a dishwasher full of rotten salad. That’s a sensory activity, right? I smack around to the garage, locate the box of snack size Drumstick cones (are there meal size ones?), and eat one sitting on the steps next to a big jug of Mexican brand bleach. Then I eat another one.

Turns out I was just hungry. Never mind about the typhus, universe.

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Erin Fernsby

I’m a homeschooling mom, a lawyer, a travel junkie, an overly ambitious gardener, and a transplanted southerner. I write about all of it.