Friday, November 11, 2016

Dinner in a Helmet


            The morning shone with the glory of late spring. The birds high in the oaks and the firs sheltering our home had awakened early with a chorus of songs.  Mid-morning had come but they still sang their joyful song.

            I stepped out the door and looked towards my garden where overgrown cabbages were waiting to be gathered.  Just then, Morgan, the granddaughter of our next door neighbor came running into my arms, a small white daisy clutched in one hand. “It’s for you,” she exclaimed. “My Grandpa, says it’s a wild one. He said you’d love it.”

“And I do,” I told her. “I love wild things.”

            She let the small daisy kiss her nose then thrust it into my hand. “Do you like to eat them?” she asked.

            “Well no, not particularly. But some wild plants are edible. When I was little I used to pull apart the tall grass stems growing in our yard and nibble their tender soft ends. Of course that’s something you don’t do unless you know for sure they're safe to eat.”

            Morgan cocked her head and frowned. “What about dandelions? I touched their little itsy bitsy petals with my tongue once and they felt so soft. Like silk maybe.”

            I twirled the daisy in my hand as memories flooded through my mind. My husband Bud had kept himself alive by gathering wild things and cooking them in his helmet while he was a prisoner of war. Miners lettuce, Lamb’s Tongue, Sour grass, even stinging Nettles. And dandelions. He ate them raw; sometimes he scrubbed their roots and cooked them separately, at other times he boiled the leaves, flowers and roots all together.

            “My husband taught me lots about wild things, Morgan. He showed me where nettles grew and how to gather them when they were young and tender. Once I cooked them up the same way I did spinach. By then they tasted awfully strong but Bud showed me how to cook them twice using different water each time. That helped.”

            But Morgan wasn’t interested in my prattle about nettles, or spinach. “Did you eat the dandelions, too?” she asked.

            I nodded. “Mostly in salads though. I mixed them up with water cress and added tender new nasturtiums—those yellow and orange flowers in my garden—and the wild violets that grew underneath the oak tree. My children loved it. The grandchildren, not so much.”

            But Morgan was no longer listening. “My Daddy’s calling. We have to go home now.”  She took off running. I saw her stop at the corner of our yard and look up at the alder trees bordering our driveway.   I knew she'd be asking her grandpa if they were edible.

           She stared for a moment then pulled several leaves off a low branch; smiled, then tucked them carefully, one by one, into her pocket. Like my memories, I thought and sudden tears filled my eyes. My childhood floated before my eyes as I remembered roaming through the woods gathering blackberries for dumpling and even rose hips for tea.

            I remembered back to my early marriage--the day I was pulling the aged cabbage from our garden to be boiled for our supper.  Cooking it was no easy task, toughened as it was by lack of water and spending long hours in the August sun. But I did it, slice by slice, and into the pot it went. I covered it with water, and set it on the burner.

            Gradually the pungent smell of cabbage filled the air. But the fork I tried to poke it with refused to penetrate its rubbery surface. I replaced the lid and turned up the heat.

            And then it happened. I heard a cry. Bud had come home from work; he stood crouched on the other side of the counter holding onto his stomach, his eyes wild with horror.

            “Take it away!” He shouted as he gestured towards the stove where the cabbage blissfully boiled. “Please, please. The rotten donkey meat. The cabbage. They added lots of water— but the smell. I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it!”  My strong husband quietly murmured, “Will I ever forget?”

            And then I knew. My heart pounded as I turned off the burner and guided him into our bedroom at the back of the house. I returned for the pot of cabbage and carried it into the garden where I dug a deep hole and covered our supper with sweet smelling soil.

            But what about the kitchen? The pungent smell of boiling cabbage still lingered in the air. Vinegar, I’d sweeten the errant pot with water and the last cup of vinegar in the bottle. 

            I’m not sure now what I served for dinner that evening, but it seems we ate applesauce covered with a thick cream. I know we never did discuss the offending cabbage I'd cooked. What I remember most was the tremble in my husband’s voice as he told me and the children stories about the food he'd eaten while he was a prisoner at Bad Orb in Germany.

            My dear husband stayed alive by boiling greens he found in his helmet to make soups of wild things.  His stories touched me deeply. He said he tried to share his knowledge with his comrades, but most refused to eat it even when he offered it to them.

            He tried to explain. “I don’t know why they didn’t, but I know my mother’s teaching and showing us kids how to fill our stomachs with wild edibles is what enabled me to survive.”

            I shuddered. “You were skin and bones when you were liberated; a mere 98 lbs.”

            “Yes," he replied.  "But I’ll never be that again, nor will anyone in my family. I promise you, Eva. No matter what it takes--neither you, nor our kids will ever go hungry.” And we never did.

            It was only a few years later that he came home from the mental hospital where he worked. Right away I noticed a change in his demeanor; his eyes shone and he held his head high as he announced, “Today I was in charge of helping the patients assigned to the ward kitchen to set up the trays for the evening meal. And—are you ready for this—the main dish was sauerkraut..

            “Something miraculous must have happened.”  Bud smiled, “I–I took a deep breath, then speared a strand of cabbage and twirled it around my fork. I took a bite and—guess what?  I can't say I liked it particularly, but it was okay.  It even reminded me of Grandma Bray and the big crock pot she used to fix her famous sauerkraut we kids used to swipe when she wasn't looking.”

            Just writing these words now, brings tears to my eyes; the stroke that took Bud’s life stole his ability to speak and to swallow—to taste.  I thank God for that long ago day when that miraculous healing came and he could eat boiled cabbage again.  How I thank God for what he did for Bud.  My husband is strong and well now—in heaven where the fruit trees bloom…

            The evening he died, his hand closed over mine.  He was telling me good-bye in his own way. He loved me with a forever love which had no ending. 

             I am grateful for the sacrifice my husband made--fighting for our freedom a world away.  I am proud of him and thankful for his life and the lives of so many others--many have died, others live among us.  God bless these dear men and women and their families with peace and love, especially in these hard times.

1 comment:

Beth Niquette said...

Good morning, Mumsie. I loved reading this, and learned some things I didn't know about Dad. You are so gifted, and I am so proud of you. This article touched my heart deeply. Daddy was a wonderful man. <3 I miss him too.