On the Farhms
3 generations of Francestown women talk about gardening, life and each other
Between taps of the brake pedal down the steep hill on the dusty road that leads us both to our homes, the exchange of a glance and a quick wave as Rita tends to her garden is almost certain.
Gloves on, weeds in hand, Rita replies to my drive-by wave and smile with a quick nod and half smile-smirk before almost immediately returning to the weeding, thinning and manicuring task of the day.
Her awe-inspiring gardens border her neatly groomed property, which is home to two dogs, four cats, 13 hens, three roosters, two donkeys and three generations of Farhm women — mom, Rita, daughter, Kim and granddaughter, Maddy.
The modest Monadnock region farm has been home to Rita for the past 72 years.
“We used to have Whip-poor-wills, but they aren’t around anymore. I thought a lot of other birds were gone, too, but then I got hearing aids and they are back!” she says with a smile, laughing between sips of her chilled ginger beer.
In 1943, Rita’s mother put $1 down on the Francestown farm. Originally used as a weekend retreat from the family’s main residence in Malden, Mass., Rita and her family became full-time New Hampshire residents in 1948.
Although she’s seen changes in the world — the climate and politics — she hasn’t noticed many changes in Francestown since the 1940s.
“It’s not just the same, it’s like it is moving backwards. Have you been to the store?” Rita asks, “It’s open again but there still isn’t a place where you can sit down and have a coffee.”
The short stretch of Main Street that leads to Crotched Mountain on the north end gives folks the option of heading southeast to New Boston or southwest to Peterborough on the south end.
In addition to the newly reopened Francestown store, Main Street is home to a church, a library and the town offices, which face the cemetery behind the Old Meetinghouse that is directly across from the old horse carriage house and the Town Hall.
Despite its lack of opportunities for social interaction or a sit-down for an espresso, this town that occupies nearly 31 square miles in the center of Hillsborough County is a hidden gem where a family can settle down, spread out and enjoy the landscape.
The Farhm women are just three of the roughly 1,600 residents that call the 03043 zip code home.
I love this woman, my neighbor, Rita; she is a kindred spirit. She is a Yankee in the truest sense. If something is broken, she’ll fix it. When the wood needs to be cut and stacked, she’s on it. If she needs produce, she’ll grow it.
“What is the secret?” I ask the lean, vibrant powerhouse with 80 years under her belt.
“I lost my mother early,” Rita said. “It had a big impact on me and what I can control in life.”
While going through a recent divorce, Kim took her mom up on the offer to move back home.
“What mother would ever say to you it’s OK to bring your two donkeys, your chickens, your two dogs and three cats home? I would have had to completely change my life, but she made it all possible,” said a teary-eyed Kim.
Rita’s granddaughter, Maddy, who is one of eight grandchildren, graduated from ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough this year and is getting ready for a road trip out to her new school in Montana.
“I do want to come back eventually, but I do want that time where I leave. I want to have the experience by myself so I can figure out who I am by myself. I’m really nervous but I’m excited to check it all out… I always have the option to come home.”
Mothers and daughters
“You’re like 60, mom,” Kim interjects from across the outdoor wrought iron patio table during my conversation with Rita.
“No, 80 is not like 60. You know why? Do you know what the next one is? It’s 90!”
“So, what is this thing where daughters don’t want to listen to their mothers?” I ask, myself the mother of a teen daughter.
“We want to do it ourselves. We want the experience and we want to make our own mistakes,” Kim said.
Rita: “I just want you to learn the right way to do it.”
Kim: “But I want to make my own mistakes.”
“She’s already done it, and she’s always right,” Kim says with a respectful nod to mom. “So I should just give up and realize at 55 that my 80-year-old mother has got it down and just listen to her.”
Rita: “Well, you’ve always been stubborn.”
Kim: “No, I’m not.”
Rita: “She was stubborn as a little kid.”
Kim: “You are stubborn.”
Rita: “I know.”
Kim: “Where do you think I get it from?”
Me: “Who is the most stubborn?”
Rita and Maddy: “Kim!”
“With gardening for instance, when mom tells me you don’t need seven rows of raspberries, I’m like, I do, because I have seven rows,” Kim said.
“I went out of town for Maddy’s college visit and she told me she ripped out two rows of the raspberries. I was so mad, but she was right!
“I realize mom’s frustrations because she’s done it. ‘Listen to me’ and I’m like I don’t want to listen to you. I want to fail on my own!” Kim shares, almost laughing to the point of tears.
“As with life and gardening, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble by just listening to my mother. I could have had a better patch. I may, may start to listen…. my mother never gives bad advice.”
I ask Maddy if she gardens with her mom and Grammy.
“No. There is nothing to do. They do it all!” she said. “I’m more artistic. I embroidered gardening hats for them, though.”
Kim jumps up to fetch the hats from inside. “Sitting down and seeing a project through, I get that from Grammy.”
As Maddy begins to tell a story about making gingerbread houses with her mom, Kim pops open the screen slider, two hats in hand.
“Mom has no patience. We would try to make gingerbread houses for the holidays and all the pieces would fall apart.”
Kim adds, “I think it skips a generation! I try but I’m more of a hunter-gatherer, so I make the [holiday] wreaths.”
Gardening – a lifelong passion
Gardening has spiked in popularity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for Rita it’s been a lifelong passion.
“My mother and father always had a vegetable garden for food. That’s what you did then during the depression and the war years, and it was expected,” said Rita. “When it comes to gardening, stay away from chemicals. Less is better. Don’t over-plant; don’t start it too early. After the first full moon in June you are in the clear.”
I asked Rita if she had any gardening metaphors that she can apply to life. Rita’s advice is, “Once you clamp it, mulch it. You don’t want to weed; you want to cultivate and pursue. Look fear in the face and move forward. You can always put it in the mulch pile.”
Taking a break from the unlimited laughter and banter, Kim says, “I’ve learned to slow down from all of this. It is like Mother Earth is just saying ‘Wake up world!’ It is a big kick in the butt for all of us. Respect me! The real mother!”
“I’ve spent time on self-reflection, how I speak to people, what my words mean and what I’m actually saying,” Maddy said. “I’ve been thinking about who I want to be as a person before leaving. I want to be a better person before I go out into the world.”
The bright side
The Farhm women have also enjoyed spending more time together doing things that may not have fit into the schedule B.C. (Before Coronavirus).
“Every Friday night we are playing board games,” Kim said. “The best thing we did, we went for a walk together, and if it wasn’t for COVID we wouldn’t have done that. I’m thinking this is so beautiful — my mother, myself and my daughter. Three generations — hiking, blueberry and raspberry picking, home projects.”
As we stroll around the gardens, donkeys Lucy and Pickles pop out of the barn. I would like to think they came out to say hello, but I am confident they were just being overly optimistic that a handful of carrots or apples were in tow.
Rita points out her favorite lily to Kim while making an authoritative statement to never cut that specific flower, ever! Maddy chuckles in the background as mom and Grammy exchange the familiar banter.
“I’m loving this time with my mother,” said Kim, who is both laughing and crying. “I love being married to her. I love this beginning/ending of our lives. She will be here until her dying day.”
Rita intentionally pauses, while shooting a full-faced smile to Kim. “And she finally put the can opener back in the right spot!”
Kendal J. Bush has been contributing to ParentingNH for more than a decade. Check out her gardening blog, Adventures in Gardening.