Just after I turned three, my parents and I moved to Bonn, Germany, where Dad was posted at the U.S. Embassy. We lived in a ground floor apartment in a neighborhood of two-story apartment buildings built for ex-pats in town to work for the U.S. government, and my parents installed a sandbox for me on the front patio. I loved the sandbox, and often used it to concoct various “dishes” out of sand and plants from the yard.
I was under strict orders not to eat anything in the yard, because doing so could make me very sick. I translated that message to mean that if anyone ate any of the German yard plants, they would die a slow and painful death.
By the time I was five or six, I had seen fresh mint used to garnish desserts in restaurants, especially my favorite dessert: a simple bowl of ice cream. So, one day, when Mom and I were home by ourselves, I went out to the sand box and dished up a couple of heaping bowls of “ice cream,” and went around the corner of our building to pick leaves off one of the bushes. I counted the leaves carefully and carried exactly twelve back to the sand box to garnish the bowls, six leaves on each pile of sand.
I yelled for Mom to come join me for an ice cream snack, and she complied, perching on the edge of the sand box and taking her bowl and rusty spoon in hand.
“It’s ice cream with mint leaves,” I said.
“Delicious!” she replied, pretending to eagerly eat every bite. Then, she handed back her bowl.
I looked down and noticed something seemed odd. I counted her leaves. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. I counted again. And again, panic growing in my chest and threatening to choke me. Distracted by my own pretend eating, I hadn’t noticed that she’d actually eaten one of the leaves.
“Where is the sixth leaf?” I asked, horrified.
“I ate it,” she said. “You said it was mint.”
Oh no, I thought. I’ve killed my mother. The future flashed before my eyes: my mother, wracked with pain from the poisonous leaf, writhing around next to the sandbox as she slowly faded away. I was horrified, and yet, also furious. These leaves didn’t even look anything like mint! Also, we were eating big bowls of sand. For God’s sakes…didn’t she make the logical connection?
I began to cry.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s not mint,” I sobbed. “It’s a leaf from the bush around the corner, and now you’re going to get sick and die.”
She hugged me and wiped away my tears. “Well, I might get a little sick, but I’m sure I’ll be fine. It was just one leaf.”
She rose to her feet, brushed the sand from the thighs of her jeans, and headed back inside the house. I sat there for a long time, and then finally came inside, as well, prepared to find her lying on the floor in the kitchen or the living room. I watched her for days, waiting for telltale signs of gastric distress, but they never came.
Mom is still fine, and since then, I’ve tried to become a better cook. I’ve branched out from cooking with sand, for example. When I say something has mint in it, I’m not kidding. This year, whatever I make will even feature mint I’m growing myself.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
Icon credit: Kalyn’s Kitchen