I lift the old straw and newspaper shreds from the bottom of the root cellar and pile it in a wheelbarrow. Then I trundle the dead brown stuff down the hill to the compost to mix with the oldest strawberry mother plants I’ve uprooted. Compost is all about mixing browns and greens.
The root cellar is not fancy. It is not big, but it works. I dug this hole into the hillside last August when I realized I had no place to store all of the garden's cabbage, potatoes and carrots through the winter. It keeps root vegetables fine, because they're okay with some damp. Mice and damp got the apples, so I won't do that again. I keep the hard storage onions separately in a buried, bathtub-sized Tupperware.
My goal is to get the strawberry garden converted to fall cabbage by next Thursday when I leave for a Montana family reunion and my Grandma Milly’s memorial.
I'm taking out the big 3-year-old mothers, and will transplant the healthy daughters in a contained bed in the hoop house to transplant next spring. Then I'll transplant some young cabbages from the Rings Garden and maybe plant some kale seeds.
Grandma died over a year ago at age 93, and this is her life celebration and burial of her ashes next to Grandpa’s in Helena. She didn’t want a service. Of course we’re having one. No preachers, though. We’re going to circle around the gravesite and each tell a memory and then lay a flower on her urn. I’m remembering how much Grandma loved the entire cabbage family, all the Brassica, including cabbage, broccoli and kale.
Like them she was crunchy, full of vitamins, beautiful, and she gave all her heirs gas. Half Irish, half Italian, she had a judging eye, spoke her mind, and believed that children should be given money and treats. She also believed that no one who hadn’t lived through the Depression had a clue what hard times really were, that America worshipped the Almighty Dollar, and that cabbage and pork go really well together. Cole slaw, kraut, steamed and boiled cabbage, she loved them all. She was born in 1916 and married Grandpa in 1931 when she was 15 and he was 33.
Milly Mancini, first communion, Catholic church, age 12 (1928)
Grandpa was a butcher, and then a school janitor, and then a butcher again. Grandma kept a store and lots of children, fostering and babysitting for extra money. I remember Grandpa doing slightly-drunken handstands at a wedding when I was 10 years old. I think Grandma was mad. Years later when I was 22, they took me in when I was in a life crisis. I went back to my roots, to Grandma Milly’s aqua and yellow kitchen, and learned how to cook.
I whistle to the Bearded One from the strawberry garden. He’s been sawing pieces of styrofoam in the barn, and now I hear a series of squeaking hinges and latching gates and know he’s on his way to fit the custom insulation into the walls and doors and ceiling of the chicken house. My whistle means I’m coming up.
- We plan to paint the stark white styrofoam with warm happy colors, perhaps even a stick man mural…
I breathe in the sweet pea perfuming the entire backyard. I open the gate and walk up the hill past the root cellar which is still wide open and airing out. Past the huckleberry bushes and their tart red jewels shining in the long-awaited sunshine. I’ll miss this place for the four days I’ll be in Montana, but I just figured out my idea for the memory I’ll share at Grandma’s memorial.
See, Grandma went to church regularly, but wasn’t a religious woman. She loved to party. She loved people and gossip and bawdy jokes. Her spirituality was practical. She once told me, I remember this clearly, that like her Irish mother, she believed that when you die, you become what you hate in this life. If that’s true, she is now either a cat or a spider, but happily not a cabbage.