What are you most thankful for? Is it a good job, your health, your family? Is it the kindness of strangers, the ability to help others, or life’s opportunities that make you grateful? This time of year, I’m always particularly thankful for the farmers that feed us and that our woodshed is fully stocked for the winter. But do you ever forget to be thankful for some things? I’m definitely guilty of this, especially when it comes to the really “big picture” stuff. I had the supreme pleasure of being reminded recently that I have so very much to be thankful for—that I’ve had some amazing people in my life (however briefly) that quite literally changed the way I think about the world.
You see, I was recently reunited with my host mother from 25 years ago. I had studied abroad in college, staying with a wonderful family in Costa Rica for 6 months while I attended the University of Costa Rica in San José. At the time, Felicia and Gerardo had four children of their own, ranging from 2 to 16 years old. Gerardo Sr. was a taxi driver with a great sense of humor. Gerardo Jr. was always helpful translating newspaper articles (and the occasional swear word when I needed one!) Milena, their oldest daughter, taught me dance steps at her big quinceañera (15th birthday party). Melissa, then 7, was always happy to help me understand the fast-paced “Sábado Gigante,” a famous long-running TV show that aired every Saturday evening. Even little Gustavo, at two years old, had a huge effect on me. I would go into the city every day, attend class or study at a café, and generally try to be a sponge, soaking up as much as I possibly could. Every day had its little “wins” when I would gain new vocabulary or insight. But little two-year-old Gustavo didn’t even have to try! I’d come home, excited to tell him what I learned that day, and he would have amassed 40 new words for my one or two. It was wonderful and frustrating, all at the same time.
But it was Felicia, my host mom that had made the greatest impression upon me. She answered my every question and was the perfect, strong role model in this new, unknown Latin culture I had to navigate. She introduced me to new foods and flavors, converting a cautious eater into an adventurous one. And our coffees together, our walks through the neighborhood visiting family and neighbors, all helped to give me roots in that new environment. After all, any transplant needs care and attention to grow and thrive. By the end of my 6-month study, I was thinking and dreaming in Spanish, my brain having been “rewired” to adapt to my new home.
In the 25 years that followed my return to the US, I wrote a few letters to my host family, but never heard back from them. And I never went back to visit. In all the years since, I would think of them from time to time, but it wasn’t until we had an exchange student of our own from India two years ago (see my article in the Mohawk Valley Living February 2016 issue “Our Life Through a Very Different Lens”) that I really began to think about my experience all those years ago. It was then that remembered what an important role Felicia and her family had played…and how that experience in many ways has made me the person I am today.
I believe it was that experience of needing to be understood, of needing to understand others that makes me so enjoy writing this monthly column. Talking with customers at farmer’s markets and hearing their stories, and then having the opportunity to share mine, all feeds that need to communicate on a meaningful level. I figuratively—and literally during a few small earthquakes—felt the ground shift beneath my feet in Costa Rica as an exchange student, and that instilled in me a life-long mindset that seeks out challenges, rather than avoids them. And for all of that, I am supremely grateful.
By now, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with farming. I guess it’s mostly to illustrate that farmers often have surprising, varied backgrounds. While not all farmers get a college education, many do, and oftentimes in something other than agriculture. Many turn to farming as a second career; others seek nursing, teaching or other degrees as a way to add to the farm family income. Some are musicians, some are artists. Some are even philosophers. Farmers are about as unique group of people that you’ll ever meet. For me, having been a stranger in a strange land, I find the role of farmer in a world of non-farmers very familiar, and wonderfully challenging.
The reunion itself with Felicia almost didn’t happen. We had found each other on Facebook about a year ago, and it took me by surprise when she began posting photos of her trip to Virginia for a conference. Next came pictures from Washington DC. When she posted pictures of NYC, I was kicking myself for not reaching out, for not planning a trip to the city to see her. It was then that she posted she was on her way to Utica to visit a student from New Hartford she had hosted just last year. I cannot tell you how thrilled I was! I messaged her, told her we live just minutes outside of Utica, and that I would be at the Oneida County Farmer’s Market that Saturday if she was free? She messaged back that they were going to Niagara Falls. It didn’t look like we’d be able to meet up. Of course, I was disappointed. But at about 9:20, at the Utica train station, there she was! She carved a few minutes out of her schedule to see me and to meet my daughters. And I am thankful once again.