Friday, October 16, 2009


“I miss my mom,” I said to David as we were preparing thanksgiving dinner. We were unbagging those nice clean vegetables that come from the farmer’s market, a little swish of water and you dump them into the pot.
Mom’s been dead for about four years now. “I miss her cooking,” I said. He said he missed it too. “And I miss being in the kitchen with her, getting things ready.”
At times like this your senses kick in. Just thinking about those good old days I could pretty much feel my hands hoisting and scrubbing and trying to peel those great big knobby garden potatoes stuck together like Siamese twins, triplets, mud caked in the places where they join. I could remember raising up my shoulder and slamming the knife down hardr than a camper’s axe to split those carrots that were so huge it only took one of them to feed five or six people. Do I miss that part? Maybe not so much. But I do miss my Mom.
Every spring she’d make the journey down to the basement, into her cold room. The cold room was the place where she kept the food. On the shelves there were beet pickles, the best beet pickles I have ever eaten. There were dill pickles, sweet pickles, canned raspberries. Some of them put up last fall, some of them—maybe a little older. Believe me, that cold room in spring was scarier than any haunted house you’d put together for your kids at Halloween. She’d open the door and after checking for mice, listening for frogs, she’d reach down into a dark bin where no arm really ought to go. She’d pull out something withery and soft, with tails hanging off it. Then she’d take that thing out to the garden, stick it in the ground, give it a little water, give it a little time and presto! It was garden magic! She’d have enough new potatoes to feed the army, with some left over for the navy and the air force. And that was only the beginning of mother’s garden. There’d be radishes and lettuce, peas and beans, carrots and parsnips and turnips, onions and cabbage and tomatoes, beets and cucumbers for pickles, and finally when you thought you couldn’t wait another day, there’d be corn on the cob.
But one spring day Mom said to me, “This will be the first time in 61 years that I haven’t planted a garden.” She was in the hospital then, sleeping on an air matress to chase away the bed sores, all tied up with tubes. She was suffering. It was hard visiting her, hard on the back, hard on the heart. When my dad heard her say the thing about the garden he jumped up and said, “Well, I guess I’d better go home and plant the garden.”
That made her laugh. He’d been growing food ever since he left school at the age of 13--growing wheat and barley and oats and canola and occasionally even flax. But planting a garden and fixing the vegetables was women’s work.
In June they packed Mom into the car and sent her home for a visit. She looked sceptically at the garden. The rows weren’t quite where they should be. The beets were probably planted too deep. The radishes needed eating. Still, things did seem to be growing. Mom went back to the hospital, a little room with a bed and chair, paying for tv and telephone by the day.
One day they offered Mom a choice. Did she want to stay where she was, or would she rather go to the room marked palliative care? Apparently the name palliative care keeps some people out. But Mom was always a practical sort. They’ve got a 27 inch tv in there and a free phone, she said. They’ve got a recliner for your father and a couch that guests can sleep on. They’ve got a microwave and a coffee pot and a toaster and a fridge and dishes in the cupboard, they still serve three meals a day. The room also had a patio door, leading out onto a patio with a table and chairs.
And a good thing it was that she moved, for out in the garden, the vegetables were getting restless. You couldn’t blame the turnips and radishes. They were bothered by bugs. Peas were bursting out of their pods, carrots were pushing and groaning and twisting around each other. The beets were jamming together and, of course, there were a lot of potatoes.
So every weekend we’d go to Dad’s house and help him get in the vegetables. Then we’d throw a roast in the crockpot, and we’d clean and shell and peel and scrape. We packed up the dinner when it was cooked and rush it to the hospital. A little crowd of family across the generations would gather there and we’d all go out to the patio with mom and eat together,. The nurses came out to take pictures. That was four years ago now. Seems like yesterday.
Not long ago we had dinner at dad’s. We told him we were coming. Dinner was ready when we got there. He served beet pickles. Oh they were good—not just god, they were great in the way that only beet pickles can be great- round and slippery and delicious; sweet and sour at the same time; tangy and gentle at the same time; firm and juicy at the same time.
“These taste just like Mom’s beet pickles,” I said.
“They are Mom’s beet pickles,” he said. “Seems like they’re not too old yet. There’s only a few jars left.”
He didn’t stop at beet pickles. These days, if you invite yourself to dinner at Dad’s, and the season is right, you will be served sweet buttered corn so fresh it snuggles the memory of the garden’s afternoon sun, and carrots scrubbed glossy and turned in butter, and slices of fried ham, or roast of beef from the crockpot. And did I mention potatoes? Well, no matter what else, there will always be potatoes, for the garden has performed its usual wonders.
And you might find it difficult to believe that this is the same man who, by the age of 79 had eaten mostly meals that had been cooked by his mother, or his wife, or an unseen cook behind a swinging door. But then, this could just be the final proof that an old dog can learn new tricks, or maybe it’s simply Dad’s indisputable declaration that eighty is not old at all for some dogs.

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