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Rebuilding Myself From the Ground Up

by Misty Rae 12 months ago in Humanity · updated 11 months ago
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How Gardening Helped Me Find My Strength and Myself

Rebuilding Myself From the Ground Up
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We've all done stupid things in life, right? Those decisions we make in our youth that we think are so great, only to learn your parents were right all along? Well, I probably made more than most, but that's where my story begins, decades ago, and one "brilliant" decision.

To steal a phrase from Sophia Petrillo, "picture it, a small military base, 1989", a bright young girl with a promising future meets a boy. He's dark and mysterious, not at all the kind of guy she'd been used to. He had his own car, a 1978 Camero. He could buy alcohol without being asked for ID. He introduced her to a life of excitement, of parties and interesting older people, people she never would have encountered on her own. She was finally "cool," not the bookish, gangly nerd she knew. The people he hung out with were those her parents would have called "losers", the same word they used for him. It didn't matter, she liked him. He was a welcome distraction from other things going on in her life at the time, most particularly, the boy that broke her heart.

The pair became an item and they soon found themselves expecting a baby. They moved onto a property on his family's farm, 200 acres, half of which sat right on the banks of Bellisle Bay. That's where this story really begins.

I didn't think I was cut out for farm life. I'd had no experience with it having been brought up in the concrete and masonry world of the army base. And I didn't think I'd like it. I didn't. In fact I hated it. I hated being way out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nobody but his family, without cable, and only a small ferry to connect me to the outside world. But I was 18 and pregnant, where else was I going to go?

As time went on, I settled in, and I began to slowly enjoy life on the farm. I learned how to plant and tend gardens, how to fish and to forage for fiddleheads and how to properly bid on livestock at the weekly sale from Audrey, my then boyfriend's grandmother. She was a sharp tongued old woman who had a habit of standing on the front porch in the early morning, blouse unbuttoned, baring her saggy breasts to the wind (and the passing traffic) while she sucked furiously on one cigarette after another. She was also a bit of a maniacal control freak, always behind the scenes, maneuvering to make sure everyone stayed under her thumb. She lorded her money and the farm, valuable real estate to be sure, over everyone's head. Step out of line, you'd be out of the will. I'm pretty sure she had her lawyer on speed dial.

Audrey didn't like me much. She made it plain. I wasn't one to easily be controlled and I often encouraged her grandson to crawl out from under her supervising thumb. I had big ideas, she said, of fancy schooling and the like. However, we, at times, were able to craft an uneasy truce, when she was teaching me something. I suspect she hoped that if I learned the farming life, I'd stay, with her grandson and the baby. And I can give her this, that old woman knew how to do everything. She appreciated my strong work ethic and I appreciated her knowledge. It's hard not to respect a 67 year old woman with the wherewithall to climb onto a 3 storey roof, tarring and re-shinging in the summer sun.

After the baby was born, a wonderfully beautiful 8 pound 6 1/2 ounce boy, financial struggles and the strain of 2 kids with a kid set in. That's when the abuse started. It was verbal at first, taunts about my appearance, how I was scrawny and now that I had a child no man would ever want me. Especially with the stretch marks. They were awful and ugly and I hated them.

Me, my 45th birthday. First time in a bikini. If you zoom in you can see the stretch marks....or tiger stripes, as I now call them, Once a mark of shame, these are my battle scars as mother, warrior and woman.

It escalated over time to his flaunting his cheating in front of my face and physical violence. We'd argue constantly, mostly over his cheating and unwillingness to work, and the end result would always be him pushing or shoving me, kicking a coffee table into me or squeezing my knee as hard as he could. He took great pride in the fact that he "never hit me," based on the technical definintion of the word hit, I suppose.

Granted, I gave as good as I got, I have a heck of a mouth on me, Rudy didn't raise no shrinking violet. But that didn't make it right or healthly. At the time, I was stuck, or at least felt stuck and I found a way to make the best of it, avoid him.

Avoiding him wasn't all that hard. His daily routine consisted of sleeping until about 11 am, eating something, then getting on the motorcycle his mother had bought for him and finding his old buddies to hang out with. So, I began getting up early, very early, with the sun. Once the baby was fed, I'd stay up and with baby in tow, I'd head outside to the garden, and spend hours weeding and tending until the morning sun became too hot.

I discovered that I loved being outside, at the crack of dawn with only the chirping of the birds and my own thoughts to keep me company. That and the occasional gurgle of an oddly talkative infant. It was my peaceful space. A place I could think. A place I was safe.

There was something about my hands in the dirt, tending those delicate plants that would soon become food that made me happy and gave me a sense of pride and satisfaction I hadn't felt since I left school. I really felt like I was doing something.

It took some time, and 2 more children, but it was in the garden, I planned my escape. It wasn't the same garden. It was a smaller one, in a tiny yard, in a mobile home park we had moved to. I was 29, pruning tomato plants in the early morning sun while Kimberly Pleadwell, my elderly next door neighbour, watched. He always watched what I was doing for some reason, and made no secret of it. One day, I was out mowing the lawn and he came out onto his tiny deck and called out to me. I couldn't hear him. I turned off the lawnmower to hear him say, "where's that useless man of your's, don't do that, come get me, I'll cut your grass, tiny thing like you...should be ashamed of himself..."

I nodded and continued on mowing. The answer to his question was, "he" was inside, eating in front of the T.V., eating leftover spaghetti, some of which, I discovered was laying in that tiny mound of chest hair between his breasts. And I was out there because it was easier to just go along without arguing. I had learned to just agree and carry on, so the kids wouldn't see the fighting, or as much of it.

But something happens when a woman approaches 30. I don't know if it's the same for men, but for women, it's like a switch is turned on, or off, and the young girl that was either ceases to exist, or she comes back with a vengeance. In my case, she came back with a vengeance that startled even me. That ball-busting, irreverent, "take me or leave me because I don't need you" teenager I was showed up again. That girl who refused to take crap from anyone, she'd been kicked long enough. She was ready to kick back. And she showed up in the garden.

There I was pruning back the useless stems, in the still of the early morning, when it hit me. I work 6 days a week while he lays around. He treats me like crap and my kids see it. He runs around with every woman he sees, even bringing a couple home as "friends". HE'S GOT TO GO!

I didn't even finish pruning. I dropped my shears, went inside and I woke him up and kicked him out. He protested, but not as much as you'd have expected. He tossed around a few empty threats, but nothing of consequence. Maybe he knew it was coming, or maybe he was done with me too. It seemed like he might have seen it coming. He filled a couple garbage bags with his stuff and landed on Shirley's doorstep; she was his latest "squeeze". She wasn't a bad person, a single mother herself, and she bought into his lies. I tried to hate her, but we talked and I couldn't. She wasn't that different from me. She was a Jewish girl who had ended up in a town where no one was Jewish, single, with a child and looking for the white picket fence dream. She was pretty, smart and deserved better. I was a multiracial, awkward girl who felt lost in a world that didn't seem to fit me. In another life, we could have been friends. But she needed to figure out her own life on her own.

And there I was, a single mother of 3 boys. Initially, I was absolutely euphoric, having 200 pounds of dead weight off my shoulders. But life is hard, and being alone with 3 school aged boys doesn't make it any easier. It seemed like I was nobody, aside from "Justin's mom," or "Misty" the name on my nametag that truckers and perverts loved to use with a creepy familiarity, as if I knew them, "hey, Misty, I'll have my usual." They'd do that finger motion, the sickening one, as if they were shooting a gun, as if that ever impressed anyone on the planet, ever. I've never seen you, I have no idea what your "usual" is. The garden became my sanctuary yet again. It became the place I'd sit, hands in the dirt, finding myself.

With my hands in the mud, planting beans in the early June sun, I came to the conclusion that I wasn't "me". I didn't know who "me" was, but I knew I was living someone else's life. If I was going to be any example for my kids, I better get cracking at my life. I decided to go back to school. I had a year of university under my belt, maybe it was time to finish that and see where it took me. I wanted my boys to see their mother as a person that finished what she started. So, I got a driver's licence (something my ex wouldn't let me do; I suppose it's easier to run around when only you can drive), got a job at a local call centre that offered better pay, medical benefits and best of all tuition reimbursement, and began my journey.

I took a night shift, 11 pm - 7am, they called it midwatch. I worked with a great group of 6 or 7 ladies and we all took hotel reservations for a certain group of hotels. There were only about 10 calls a night, so I had ample time to study and work on papers and assignments. And I learned some German, "kein dolmetscher, bitte rufen sie in dreißig minuten zurück" (basically," call back in 30 minutes because there's no interpreter"). Days Inn Germany started calling in at 6 am and had no idea they were calling Canada, and often were annoyed, rightfully so, to find someone on the phone who couldn't speak their language. So I taught myself that simple phrase to put them off until Days Inn Europe took over at 7 am. I owed them at least the respect of speaking, even if poorly, their own language, to let them know what was going on. At least while I was there.

I graduated, with distinction, and with a degree the university had never granted berfore. A degree only for me. An honours in Political Science with a Major in Psychology. The powers that be said there was no such degree. I had the credits, I wanted "credit" as it were, for them. They didn't give me much of a fight.

I missed my garden. I had abandoned it for 2 years. I just didn't have the time or energy. So, I did what any logical person would do, I went to law school and left the garden for a while longer.

Three more years of insanity and I graduated, on the Dean's list and got a job at the biggest firm in the entire area. My dream had come true. I had the job, the money, the life I wanted for myself and my kids. Except I was miserable.

I worked 20 hours a day, sometimes more. I was terrified they'd find out I wasn't worthy. I had this need, this drive to prove that I belonged, that I deserved my spot among the elite. Looking back, I know there was some sort of imposter syndrome at play, along with the PTSD and anxiety. It somehow never dawned on me that I had already proven myself by getting hired. I had to show them. I had to work harder, longer than anyone else. I stayed up countless nights, often sending completed memos to partners at 3 or 4 am, proud of the timestamp that demonstrated my commitment. I took on everything they threw at me. I was somebody. I wasn't "too stupid to be a lawyer," as my ex used to say, I wasn't a scrawny loser that no one wanted.

Then my mother started showing signs of dementia, I drove the 90 minutes to see her, still keeping up the pace. Her particular affliction, Lewy Body Dementia, didn't steal her memory, it took her sanity. She saw people that weren't there, demons and religious figures, that she was convinced kidnapped me and meant me harm. Presenting myself gave her a brief reprieve. She knew I was safe, for the moment. The moment didn't last long and soon I was driving 90 minutes 3 and 4 times a day. I was superwoman, mother, daughter, lawyer. I was the person who could handle it all. Six feet tall and bulletproof! Any anxiety or exhaustion I had, I pushed aside. I was the person, "the" person who could do it all. Feelings of dissatisfaction, also, to the side. I was the centre of everything, invited to all the parties, given the best assignments, all while the rest of my life was falling down around me. I was a pretty big deal.

Too bad I hated it all. I knew there was more. I wasn't sure what it was, but as time wore on, the euphoria of being "in" made me want "out". I couldn't breathe. My own life was chocking me. There was no respite, calls from clients, doctors, kids, it was too much. I began to think a terrible thought, that maybe I couldn't be everything to everyone. I planted another garden. It had been years since I'd had one. But there I was, in the back yard of my bungalow with my then husband in the garden again, hands in the dirt, early moring air, alone with my thoughts. This time, my mother was with me. She was on one of her visits from the care home she was in. She watched me planting, giving me orders from her days in the depression planting gardens. She crouched, with surprising ease, beside me and said, " If you aint happy, you best sh&t or get off the pot."

Her words rang in my ear like a bell. I knew what I had to do. I had married a man I thought was the polar opposite of my ex. And in many ways he was, he worked, steadily, as a carpenter and scaffolder, and he was never abusive, at least not physically. But I didn't love him. And he didn't love me. He loved the idea of me, what I represented to the rest of the world. He, like me, longed to show everyone else how great he really was. For me it was work, for him, it was having a wife 11 years younger, who looked younger still, shapely and smart, that he could brag about on the site. I woke up more than once to him complaining about what didn't happen the night before, or wondering where his clean underwear was. And to top it off, he seemed to have a problem with my kids. He didn't show it at first, he was "step father of the year". But slowly, he began to show his true colours.

It started with a pair of skates. He came home with 2 pair, both used, one shiny and modern, the other dingy and cheap. He decreed the good pair was for his son Kyle and the dingy pair for my oldest, Justin. Never mind Justin was bigger than Kyle. I tried to explain that he couldn't make differences like that, that all 5, my 3 and his 2 were on equal footing. He never got it. And, after a while, his resentment and jealousy toward my kids was too much. That wasn't going to work. I realized I was in love with an illusion, what I thought my life was supposed to be.

I planted the beans, and the peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, and carrots, and contemplated my life. I was miserable, more miserable than I'd ever been. I was trapped in a marriage with no life, no passion or excitement, just the mundane motions of the day to day. I told myself that maybe that was what grown up love was, just the day to day grind without the butterflies. I almost convinced myself it was true. And I was trapped in a job I hated. I wanted being a lawyer to be more Erin Brockovich and less corporate shill. I wanted to fight for right, not tow the party line.

As it had before, the Earth in my hands spoke to me. Mother Earth whispered in my ear. My mother's face seemed to be in the ground, brown as the mud, repeating her words, "sh%t or get off the pot." I knew what needed to be done, for me, my kids and my sanity. I was 42. I could see the years I lost and the few years ahead, maybe 42 more, a few more, maybe less, precious years I couldn't waste.

I left. First I left him. He didn't make it easy, he stalked me, he blackmailed me (a stupid thing to do with someone with legal training, by the way). He did whatever he could to make my life hell. And when He found out I later took up with my high school sweetheart, an aimless artist with nothing but a dream and a boatload of talent, he doubled his efforts. To this day, I can't answer an unannounced knock at the door without my PTSD sending a trigger warning and sending me into a spiral that takes me days to come out of.

I got a place near the edge of town, surrounded by trees and gardens. I didn't plant anything, everything was already there. I tended and I picked. As I picked raspberries, I stood in the silence. Again my mind talking to me. I had tried to craft my legal career into something I could live with. It wasn't working. I changed firms, opting for a smaller outfit, more focused on the individual. It was no better than the other. Sadly, in the legal game, money, not right, is the benchmark. There seemed to be no way to reconcile my conscious with my profession, or at least the way it's commonly practiced.

Mother Nature whispered to me again, telling me to dig deep, to be true to myself. My children were finally adults. The oldest graduated from university with a degree in Chemistry, and the other two, were living their own lives as grown men. I wrestled with my mind. What was "being true to myself"? I hardly knew who I was anymore. I had to find that out before I was true to it.

Me, my sweetie, and my oldest with his degree in Chemistry, 2014

So I did. I spent time thinking about it. I took time off work. I searched my soul. What I found out was, I wasn't a lawyer, at least not in the way it could be done for a living. I was a writer and a farmer. So, I left my job and I moved.

Writing gives me a great satisfaction. But gardening gives me peace. When I'm out there, in the dirt, my hands filthy, mud under my nails, I feel like I'm at one with nature. In fact, I feel like I AM nature. I have the power, through my hands, to create life. Granted, I created life 3 separate times, but I'm almost 50, my womb won't be creating any more life (or at least I hope not, the jury's still out on that), but in the soil, I can create all the life I want. I feel like the goddess Ashera, creating the very life that sustains us. I grow the food that we eat. I know where it comes from. There's a power, a satisfaction, in that. A feeling of zen and accomplishment that comes from knowing you've done something good for yourself, your family and the Earth.

Life as a writer and a gardener isn't lucrative, at least not in terms of money. But money is only one measure. Gardening has seen me through the most difficult times in my life. In a three decade span, it has provided me solace, safety, comfort and led me to who I am. Now, it continues to nourish me, both spiritually and physically through its bounty. It keeps me grounded, like an invisible tie to the Earth itself. It helped me find me. And if you're looking for me, I'm out here, growing stuff.

Some of my bounty

Cherries, anyone?


About the author

Misty Rae

Retired legal eagle, nature love, wife, mother of boys and cats, chef, and trying to learn to play the guitar. I play with paint and words. Living my "middle years" like a teenager and loving every second of it!

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