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Small gestures become focus of community charity
“I grew up as a farm worker,” the white-haired lady says as she plucks more sweet green peppers from a wind-tossed bush. “I picked anything… cotton, vegetables, you name it. But I didn’t pick watermelons. My brothers did that.”
Author, historian and local activist Geronima “Jeri” Garza has replaced the front lawn of her home on a quiet Cotulla backstreet with pathways that lead to vegetable and fruit patches whose harvests will sustain many more than one household throughout the year. Between them, delicate zinnia flowers nod in the late-afternoon sunlight and may beckon passers-by, but it is the blue-painted iron patio chair at the corner of the driveway that makes people stop.
The Blue Chair, as it is unsurprisingly known, has developed a renown in the community as a point of neighborly charity. It is here that Jeri will place bags of
fresh-cut spinach, maybe some peaches, beans, peppers, even the occasional mango, for anyone who may need it to collect.
In return, Jeri will receive gifts that strangers leave for her. These have included crackers for soup, small tokens of appreciation and, heartwarmingly, drawings and paintings made by local children expressing their gratitude.
“I was a girl in the fields, and girls didn’t pick watermelon,” Jeri grins in recollection of her farm days in the 1960s and 1970s. “But I wanted to prove my worth. I was a determined girl.
“One day, I finally had the chance,” she laughs. “I was allowed to drive the watermelon truck. Well, I jammed the gears and I spilled the melon cargo. That was the end of that.”
Jeri examines another healthy pepper bush.
“Look at this one,” she says admiringly. “I grew this one from a small cutting. Look how it’s flourishing. I think it appreciates the care, and it’s rewarding us with more peppers than I’ll ever eat.”
She fills a shopping bag with peppers and spinach. These greens will go to the Blue Chair. Someone will stop shortly and take whatever they need to complement a dinner for the whole family.
“I recently had some extra grapes, and I posted on social media that I’d put some out on the chair if anyone would like them,” she says. “People came and took them. Not too long ago, some kind strangers brought me compost to fertilize my plants. That helps me grow even more to share.”
Jeri started her vegetable and fruit garden for much the same reasons as most, namely to grow some healthy foods that would supplement her weekly groceries or even replace the more expensive greens that she’d otherwise have to buy at the store. Before long, she had crops that were greater than she had expected.
“You know how gardens always give you more,” she says. “But people are gracious. They come and pick up what they really need.
“I’m glad that these extra greens and fruits have gone to someone’s table,” Jeri says. “Families with kids need extra nutrition.”
Jeri is acutely aware that there are households in her community whose breadwinners are having trouble making ends meet during hard economic times. Many jobs have disappeared in recent months, both because of a slow-down in the energy industry over the Eagle Ford Shale and as a result of successive lockdowns and closures during the coronavirus pandemic. Any help that community-minded neighbors can give is appreciated by scores of families who may be anonymous.
“I don’t know all the people who come and get fresh vegetables, but that’s okay,” Jeri smiles. “Some of them leave something in return. After I put out the grapes, someone made jelly with the extras and left it on the chair for me.
“This is the Wintergarden of Texas, so we have something to harvest all the time,” she says. “For example, I had a very good pear harvest this year, far more than I need. I’m happy to share what my garden gives me.
“These zinnias are just here to be beautiful,” she says, brushing the bright blooms on her way along the garden path. “There’s just something about some fresh-cut flowers that brings a smile to people. This is especially true of the shut-ins, people who can’t get out anymore and enjoy nature’s beauty. If they only have a few fresh flowers to brighten their day, it makes such a difference.
Jeri looks down at the spinach plant whose choicest leaves she has just picked.
“In a few days, this will be full again,” she says. “It will just keep on giving.
“I didn’t plan this,” Jeri says of her shared harvest. “It just happened. I have found that people are gracious, even when times are hard, and they will give when they can. I don’t have a system or anything, and I don’t ask for anything in return. People feel a goodness in giving back, and that pleases me.”
The November sun sinks into the branches of a nearby mesquite, and Jeri’s garden is bathed in golden light, its greens and pinks especially brilliant at the end of the day.
The Blue Chair bears a bushel of freshly harvested food that will go to someone’s table tonight.