Heaven is looking a little bit different these days. The pearly gates are still there, but rather than gracefully swinging open wide to admit you, St. Peter will hand you a machete and you will need to hack your way through the thick blackberry vines to reach the latch and then squeeze through quickly before the vines snap the gates shut. The streets are indeed lined with gold, but there are odd cracks with lettuce growing out of them. The angels are looking a bit grubby as well.
I'm sorry about all this, but it's my mother's fault. Mom passed away last year, and to say she was an avid gardener is like saying the Pacific Ocean is damp. I've long held the theory that Mom was actually the reincarnation of Mother Nature. It wasn't just that she loved her garden. And it wasn't that she spent time doing all the normal gardening things like weeding and fertilizing, although she did do that. Mom was magical. When she walked across lawn you could almost see the grass turn greener. Flowers didn't just bloom at home, they sprang into life with a crazed abundance and raced outward into the neighborhood. We really did have a problem with sidewalk lettuce, and don't even talk to me about blackberries, I'm still paying off the doctor's bills. It wasn't mom's idea to let everything run riot; she just couldn't help it. She once planted a tasteful little arch of forsythia to frame the front door. That was the last anyone saw of the house. Several times a year she'd have to trim away enough branches (this would take all day) to enable us to use the front door, but that was all she could manage. The rest of us didn't dare touch it for fear that the forsythia would leap out at us growling and we'd never be seen again.
Meanwhile, the bees were sending messages to every swarm in Utah that they had found paradise, the plum tree would rain plums on all the passer-bys that the bees didn't get, and there was enough pollen in the air to fell an army even if they didn't have allergies.
Most dangerous of all though were the vegetables. At my house, if I think the carrots might be ready to harvest, I can pick them today or tomorrow or even next weekend. It doesn't matter much. At Mom's house if something was ready to pick, it was an emergency. Wait 20 minutes and it might take two strong men to pull the carrot, wait till the next day and the roots will have reached China. OK, maybe that is an exaggeration, but not by much.
For example, in our family albums there is a picture of my then 5 year old nephew standing next to one of Mom's zucchinni's. A charming shot if you don't know that two seconds later the zuchinni slipped and knocked my nephew over.
If you're thinking that all this bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables sounds wonderful. You're right. And now, that I'm an adult, and I actually have to PAY for mediocre produce, I think of Mom's garden with great fondness, not to mention great hunger. But as a kid, I was not excited about vegetables of any kind, let alone giant mutant varieties. The fruit was OK, especially when turned into fresh strawberry rhubarb pie, but even fruit had hazards, like the year mom turned her talents to the maraschino cherry.
I think our family was fairly typical when it came to maraschino cherries. Once in a blue moon we'd have ice-cream sundaes, and at Easter we'd have a ham with pineapple rings and cherries, and that was about it. One jar of cherries would easily last us a year, but that didn't stop Mom when she found out that it was possible (technically) to make maraschino cherries herself! We had a cherry tree (naturally), and it was my job to sit on the back porch with the cherry pitter and pit a vast quantity of cherries. Meanwhile, Mom -- who could be very persuasive, contacted a friend of a friend of a friend who was a chemist and was forced--er persuaded, to sell her a quantity of illegal chemicals. She dumped these chemicals along with an eye of newt and six frog livers for all I know, into a huge witches style caldron in the basement. Mom yelled at me through the billowing chemical fog to bring the cherries. And while I lugged the bucketfuls to her with streaming eyes she stirred them into the pot looking like exactly something out of Grimm's fairy tales. At last she announced,
"There!! Cough choke cough cough, those just need to have a good soak now. "
"Cough cough gasp How long will this take?" I asked.
"Oh, cough hack cough---about six months." She replied.
"Wha---cough choke cough----t?????"
She wasn't kidding. Six months later all the color had been bleached out of the cherries. She put the cherries through a different chemical rinse, split the batch into two, colored one batch red and the other green, canned them and PRESTO!! 400 jars of maraschino cherries! That was in the 1970's. When we cleared out the pantry last summer some of those cherries were still there -- guaranteed to add a special zing to any party.
Come to think of it, zing was my mother's specialty--whether it was gardening, cooking, a sudden yen to learn macrame or getting her eyebrows tattooed to avoid the burden of the 10 second morning eyebrow pencil routine, her life was always interesting. I'm curious what she's done with heaven. If you should you happen to get to heaven before I do -- and believe me, Mom's cooking is worth dying for, I hope you'll enjoy the changes. I have no doubt but that the flowers are larger and more vibrant, the fruit is sweeter, the animals are friendly (Mom will have them all tamed by this time), the heavenly choir, with one especially lovely alto voice, sings with extra joy, and the fragrance of your favorite food will be floating in the breeze -- that's because Mom's looked up the recipe and has it ready to welcome you.
And when you've enjoyed all this, look for the surprises. I don't know what she's up to these days, but I'm sure she's up to something.
Alma Alleman died of pancreatic cancer on March 24, 2012. To make a donation to cancer research please visit cancer.org
Byrd is an academic advisor at the Student Success Center at Weber State University.