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
This book was written as a warning as much as a way to find closure and create words out of my mother’s ashes. It is bringing to life a past that is all too present for many people on our planet, and it is embracing the children and mothers who are just trying to take care of a delicate and fragile future, to watch their children grow.
My house burned and now your ashes are mingled
with those of my home—
beds and scraps of poetry and walls.
The April skies are a blue hum that turns to gray water
when the winds come, and the bindweed
already strangles the clematis while I let it,
while I seek shelter.
if you were here I would lean against
your strong, Austrian bones, touch
your weathered face and remind you
that every home is temporary, even that of body,
and you didn’t have to fight your death so much,
the ragged breathing and sweat in the nursing home,
which smelled like detergent and urine.
if you were here you would find me a home.
I am so alone.
But I have friends and family, just not you.
In the evenings the liquor soothes me,
and when the sun drops over the mountains,
shadows stretch into my belly and nestle
in my empty breasts that once fed my children,
as you did me.
I become the rain and though the ground is thirsty,
I want the sun to cut through the trees and allow
the shade to do its dark work.
Father gave me a pill made of blood and rancor
and he told me if I swallow it, an apple tree
would grow in my body.
He gave me a glass of water and made me swallow it,
and you didn’t protect me.
It tasted like vinegar and metal.
It grew in me and God pushed me out of the jungle
into a city’s alley where discarded needles
punctured my feet and the man with the green coat
gave me a torn blanket.
At least now I’m never cold.
I forgive you.
I remember how your ashes glinted warm on the Danube
and carried you to the Black Sea.
The only sea I know is the Saragossa Sea,
which has no shore.
Published by Narrative Northeast, 2018, nominated for a Pushcart Prize