Mentors and markets

Richard sent me an email this week with the subject line: “news from Lucy.” I knew that it would certainly not contain good news.
Lucy (and her husband Allen) have been long time vendors of the markets Richard had founded and still ran. The markets that I had made my primary community long ago and then the markets that had become my employer and most recently, the markets where I am now viewed as an “old timer” and accepted by many as a semi-permanent member of their world without knowing exactly what it is I do on behalf of the markets anymore.
The news was that Allen had finally passed away, after a set of years where he got sicker and sicker and then we assumed had become very sick as we saw him no more at market. I knew it was coming sooner rather than later as I would go behind the tables and talk to Lucy (when she could show up) about Allen and how she was doing while it was going on. It was.. clearly tough.
Richard and I exchanged a set of emails quickly in a few hours, deciding to drive together to the funeral home which was about an hour north of the city. Since we used to sit a few feet from each other in an office the size of some people’s closet and ran a set of weekly markets and traveled to other markets and conferences both near and very far from home together we find we can sit companionably in many situations. Since we hadn’t been able to do that for a year or so, I think we both looked forward to the time again (after watching each other’s stress level rise during so many years of working under calamity, major deadlines and funding questions) and were also thankful that we could also cover the awkwardness of going to a funeral home by tag teaming the work of comforting.
Richard picked me up, we hightailed it to the funeral home (him assuming I had the directions, me assuming he would get us there safely), both of us talking all of the time about markets, vendors, Lucy & Allen, our families, New Orleans, shared friends and colleagues, social movements, and politics. Same as always in other words.
When we got there, Richard was immediately spotted by one of the daughters, the daughter who came to market often in the early days and had also sold at other markets as a vendor. She was glad to see Richard and hugged him closely and then Richard reminded her who I was. “I remember your face…” she said to me as she cried and hugged me. (I always tried to stay off the market “stage” as a manager, finding ways to showcase others and parry attention away. So there were itinerant people and family members of vendors who had only smiled at me or said hello or goodbye, since they had no issues to bring up with the manager and I had no need to talk about myself.)

We left her to other mourners as we headed to Lucy. As we neared, we saw our wonderful founding market nurseryman, Mr. M standing past her, talking to some other elders. He clearly looked well and I know we were both pleased we could look forward to having a minute to catch up with him as well.
We waited for Lucy to make her way through the line, and noted to each other that she looked tired and thin but at ease and warm with everyone. No surprise there-her market personality was steel tough but personable and incredibly insightful when it came to her customers and her fellow vendors. As we waited, their other daughter saw Richard, came out of the pew where she sat with her kids and hugged him and thanked us for coming. She said as she turned to go back to the pew with tears in her eyes, “He’s on his tractor again, I know…”and went and sat back down. Finally, we were at the head of the line where Lucy was. She smiled and said to us quietly, “My friends…” hugged us together, hugged Richard, then us again. We talked with her about the news that her daughter had shared a minute before; that Allen had asked Lucy a few weeks ago as she was readying for market if she needed him to do anything. That he asked her if she remembered to pack this or take that to the market. He still remembered the drill in other words.
That this week, she had finally sat down with Allen and told him it was okay and time for him to go – that after her son told her gently it was time to tell their father. She told us what she told Allen, and it sounded like other conversations that she had with him that she had recounted to me or I had overheard snippets – she was the one with perspective, while Allen was the one with the push forward who depended on her for a calm summing up and decision.
She introduced and passed us on to her son next in line, who was a close physical reflection of his father, and judging from the pictures projected on the wall, as her daughters were in their resemblance of a young Lucy. Seeing the pictures reminded me how much life each of our market community members have that we may have little or no knowledge. Pictures of Allen in the service, with his beloved grandkids (5) and with Lucy in many moments that were about family. The love and respect for their parents was old-fashioned and right.
We reached Mr. M. and had a grand time (quiet but grand) catching up with him. He was a founding vendor, one with superior retail skills and a wide-ranging client base that he brought with him from the shred of the public market he had last vended at, the one that Richard had met him and asked him to vend at the new market almost 20 years ago. He had remained a close confidant and mentor to Richard throughout the years and now, even after Mr. M’s son was now the vendor and Mr. M was no longer a physical presence at market, the warmth and respect was still evident between these two. Interestingly, viewing that particular relationship at the market over the years had sent me to find my own market mentors, one of whom had certainly became Lucy. Lucy had been the one of the ones to tell me the farmers unease with our separate holiday fair trade market, had taken me aside and asked me to explain what the purpose was for the new layout again and again (until I got the point she was trying to make) and one that had always also shared her personal perspective about market farming. Her perspective was so valuable to me that I had once said to her while sitting in her kitchen years before, “I think you might be the best example of a pure market vendor that I know.” That comment was in reply to the story she had just told about planting a certain type of bean the day before and had thought as she did, “I can’t wait to tell (customer’s name) that they are in the ground! They’re her favorite!” It was because that I knew that she and Allen had no intention of selling their food to wholesale interests, instead wanting to sell to those they knew, those whose children they watched grow at market, those who they could help understand what and how to prepare good food. This from a woman whose own family was one of the largest and best known of the great wholesale farming families. I learned a great deal from both of them, and Mr. M, as well as a few others who kept me in their sights.
Finding a mentor among market vendors is a delicate matter-one that does not necessarily imply favoritism, but instead means that a reality check or a confidence will be forthcoming when they think you need it. Watching the work done by a gifted seller of their own proudly made goods at a market is another type of mentoring too. And finally, going to pay your respects to one of your farming families, for one of your mentoring vendors in the company of the market founder and his mentor is yet another gift that I realize I have received from my community.

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