on curmudgeons and visions

The night is ringed with coyote calls as the moon trudges up the sky, steely silver in the cold and patient.

We made it to our favorite farm market yesterday for the first time in a month, work having eased enough to allow such normalcies again. I entered the doorway glad to be back, eagerly thinking ahead to what might be on offering in the small shop: fresh moringa or sourdough bread and bundles of drying rosemary? New heavy pumpkins? Pea sprouts and kale and four kinds of beets? Oranges and lemons and apples hardly bigger than my nose, so organic they show the normal signs of wear any vegetable does when not dosed up with toxins? The space is small and human, with plenty of room to turn around in the aisles and not run over someone else, a corner set aside for cooking demonstrations and another for sitting and visiting, and the whole place—inside and out—is dotted with happy, living herbs and flowers in big pots.

I treasure my time in this shop, look forward to it as some might do to sporting events and loud music. Things here make sense to me. The owner is always happy to see us, and shows it. She and her partner run a nearby 100-acre farm on which they grow many of the vegetables and fruits. The other products are carefully chosen, hand-selected for quality and health benefits, and the owners proudly serve samples of whatever’s fresh and in season.

Today, she looked up as we came in, and I greeted her happily. We’d missed her, I said it, and then added, “And how are things treating you?” It’s a normal greeting for me, like ‘How are you’ but more down home. She nodded, but did not meet my eyes, and I knew in an instant something was all wrong. She looked down for a long moment, shaken, and I, suddenly alert to something but with no clue what, managed an “Oh no. Are you all right?”

Silences tune up your senses for listening. The room went still. It turns out that her partner died a few days ago after a short illness. We hugged her and stood as she pieced it together and I finally began registering the small changes since last time: there were two photos of him on shelves behind the counter, and handmade signs announcing a potluck in memorial after the first of the year.

She was the one I’d always enjoyed seeing most. He was a medical doctor and so keen on the health benefits of food that, whenever he was about, he’d walk down the aisles with us, re-stocking bins while lecturing us on each item we considered. I always figured he viewed me as a philistine, for I’d once asked for spinach and he shook his head from the other side of the room and made a beeline for me with a fervent ten-minute lecture on how bad it was for my system and what pea sprouts could offer instead. Concerned (clearly) that I might not’ve gotten the message, he came back a couple times with more nutritional notes: all the passion of a preacher, I thought then and ever since, but with considerably more information and science in the sermon. The doc, as everybody called him, was a curmudgeon for organic foods, fair trade, and good non-pharmaceutical industried health products. Still, I happen to like spinach, and all the science in the world isn’t likely to change that, and I can be a bit of a curmudgeon myself all told. So while I respected him greatly, she was the one I liked, the one I looked forward to seeing most of all. He was entertaining, a true desert denizen, brilliant and fierce, but she was the one I liked, the one with constant small kindnesses for me every time I entered the market.

As she spoke of his passing to us yesterday, though, I remembered back to the first time I’d ever set foot in their shop and I offered the story to her: she was cutting watermelon slices for samples in the back, and I’d paid for my veggies and walked to the café next door to sit outside and just be. The doc made a beeline for me, coming out the door of their shop to my table a couple minutes later and handing me one perfect slice of watermelon. My favorite food on the planet, bar none. He was a curmudgeon, yes, but a dear and unique soul. Stewart remembered the spinach lecture (he’d had his own) and other samples and the attention to detail that the doc put into even the smallest product they carried. And finally she smiled, us too, as we looked about anew at the hand-picked, fair-trade coffees and lip balms, tinctures and homebaked healthy treats, that ever-changing array of whatever veggies are in season or being nurtured in cold frames and greenhouses—the results of the eccentric vision of a curmudgeon and his partner and their years of hard work and giving.

And now he’s gone. The shop, just as tastefully arranged and welcoming as ever, felt a bit empty and larger and so sad. She will go on, it is clear, she’s determined. This was, as she put it with hand gestures, her part of their work. The gardens, the finding and researching and getting of the special olive oils and coffees and teas, were his. She has help for some of it and is now learning the rest. She is meeting his suppliers and distributors for the moringa they grew on the farm. She will go on. Their vision for organic, fairly priced vegetables for desert folk like us will go on. The market will thrive.

It has to. As Stewart and I walked up and down the aisles, quieter and choosing more things than usual, we were vowing (without words, only a shared look or two) to come regularly now and not skip weeks for work anymore. Other people came in and she helped them. And then she showed up with a fresh, newly washed and stemmed, home-cultivated strawberry for each of us, drops of water still on the skin of her hands as she passed us these singular treats, and I remember the watermelon and that day three years ago and the curmudgeonly doctor who cared enough about our health to walk amongst us and share his knowledge, his passion, whether we wanted it or not.

He didn’t seek medical attention at the end, she said, not wanting to surrender to the killing treatments contemporary medicine sells for serious illness. He simply lived to his last day, and then passed away in the night. When it comes my time to go, I hope I have that much courage. And can manage to go out a curmudgeon. Vision intact to the end.


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