13 July, 2023
"Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light." - Theodore Roethke
Where Cross Street Flower Farm began.
I am not a typical farmer if there is such a thing. I did not grow up on a farm, and my earliest memories are not about riding on my grandfather’s tractor or picking flowers from my grandmother's garden. It is not about farming at all.
It is about a candy store. The year was 1978 and I was 4 years old. My family lived in a row home in Pennsauken, NJ, a lower-middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. My parents met as elementary school teachers at the local Catholic school. At the time, there were still Mom and Pop shops in our neighborhood, and a few blocks away from us was one that sold penny candy.
I was enamored with this shop and the aisle of brightly colored candies, and perhaps even more with the idea that I could go there and buy candy all by myself. I belong to perhaps the last generation of American kids that were given free rein during the day and told to go outside and play. One day I had an idea to buy enough candy to share with the kids in my neighborhood, especially my friend Heather. My Mom Mom, our Italian-American grandmother, had just taught me how to blow bubbles with chewing gum and I wanted to teach Heather how to do it too.
So, I loaded up my change purse with money from my Snoopy piggy bank. I did not know how to ride a bike yet, so I had to convince my older sister, Andie, who was 7 at the time and also my personal hero, to drive me there on the back of her yellow banana seat bike. I remember it had a daisy floral print on the seat and the two of us fit perfectly on it.
[Nikki and Andie LaVee in Pennsauken, NJ, 1977. Ages 3-6]
When we got to the store, I remember picking out my candy - bazooka chewing gum, tootsie rolls, smarties, wax candy. I skipped over the fireballs and red hots. I did not know how to count out change yet. The woman that owned the store was behind the counter, and her expression changed as I put my bulging change purse on the counter and asked her to help me count it out. She was not going to make this easy.
She looked down at me and said sternly, “Does your mother know you are buying all this candy?” Without pause, I said yes, but she guessed that I was lying and responded, “Well, I am going to have my son follow you home to make sure about that.” She did let me buy the candy, but by then my plan was ruined and I did not even want the candy anymore, they felt like stolen goods and all the joy was gone.
The next thing I remember is sitting on my front stoop getting yelled at and punished by my mom for lying and not asking permission. I remember the feelings of shame and guilt flooding my little body. I knew I had done something wrong by lying, but my intention was good. I wanted to buy candy with my money and make people happy. Clearly, the world in 1978 was not ready for me, an independent-minded 4-year-old girl that wanted to buy candy for the neighborhood. And I still had quite a few things to learn about life as well.
If I could go back in time and sit on the stoop with my crying 4-year-old self that day, this is what I would tell her:
Nikki, you have a gift. You know what you want and you are not afraid to go out and get it. You also know that sharing what you love with other people will bring you happiness and in turn, will bring happiness to others. You will spend the first half of your life gathering the skills you need to fine-tune your gift. You will also learn how to keep going when the world tells you NO. You will face disappointment and feel discouraged many times, and this is not the last time you will get in trouble for one of your grand ideas.
People will tell you repeatedly that you are too much, and that your ideas are too big. That they will never work. But you will not listen, you will not take no for an answer. You will learn how to adapt and be flexible, and you will stay curious about life and continue to follow your dreams.
When you are 40 years old, you will completely reinvent yourself, in a way no one will see coming. You will become a flower farmer. And a light bulb will go off in your head, more like a supernova or solar shower that is so bright there is no way to ignore it. You will know that this is exactly what you were meant to do and that everything before was just practice.
You will build a 7-acre flower farm and one of your first decisions will be to make the aisles wide, not just because the flowers grow tall and need room, but because you want to welcome the community in to share the beauty and the energy of the flowers. You will grow, harvest, and sell more flowers than you ever imagined. The community will love every stem you grow. You will offer a weekly flower share and develop a long list of loyal customers. You will hold sold-out floral design workshops and pick your own events.
[Nikki LaVee Bartley, 2021 Floral Design Workshop]
One beautiful Spring afternoon when you are in your late 40s, you will be walking through the flower fields during a Pick Your Own Tulips event, and a little girl who looks to be about 4 years old will walk up to you with her mom. Her name is Savannah. She will have wild, uncontrollable, curly hair that is blowing in the wind. She will have on a floral dress and boots that are covered in dirt. She has just picked a big bunch of your candy-colored tulips and holds them proudly in one hand. She holds out her other hand to show you something else. It is a big dirty rock that she found in the tulip field. She is taking that home too.
This is the story I would tell my 4-year-old self who was crying on the front stoop. I would tell her to be patient and have faith in herself and her dreams. And that one day she is going to grow up and build a magical place for her community and for girls like her and Savannah, who want to have beautiful flowers in one hand and dirt and rocks in the other. A place where we can do it all and be too much and just enough at the same time.
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