My Mother’s Garden

The third time my father tried to commit suicide was the summer my mother worked hardest on our garden. He was in a mental hospital, and it was a typical Midwest summer—hot, humid, and punctuated with thunderstorms. I was eleven years old and spending my days at the City Club, which consisted of a pool and a dingy locker room with concrete floors and showers that felt like needles, while my mother stayed home and weeded the beds of flowers and the vegetable garden.

My mother was Austrian and grew up after the war scavenging in the Alps for mushrooms, nettle, and elderberry blossoms they fried in butter if they could find someone with a cow to trade it for the potatoes from their garden. Now in South Bend, Indiana, she collected seeds of herbs from her visits to her stepmother from summer visits in Leoben and planted them in our backyard, where they grew green and lush in the soil she made rich with cow manure she got from a farmer from Michigan (Its stench used to embarrass me). With the herbs she made Kartofelknoedel, bread dumplings made of stale bread, broth, and herbs. She also planted currant bushes, and I used to pick the tiny sour berries and eat them. In August she would harvest them and turn them into jam. All year round we ate it in Palatschinken, crepes filled with jam and sprinkled with powder sugar, or in our peanut butter sandwiches. My mother hated peanut butter but reluctantly fed it us. She said it was like eating food that someone had chewed for you. Continue reading