Remembering Grandma’s rhubarb
Prepare yourself for a story of loss, longing and serendipity. A tale of happy accidents and proof that life just works out sometimes. This is a story ... of rhubarb.
When my sister, brother and I were growing up, one of our favorite things to do at Grandma’s house was graze in the backyard. We ate handfuls of sour cherries and black currants. We gobbled apricots until there were no more, and then used rocks to crack open the pits to eat the nuts. And it seemed like we always had a stalk of rhubarb to gnaw on, as we hunted for ant lion traps in the sandy shade of the shed.
All we had to do was ask, and Grandma would take a paring knife from the kitchen and cut us our very own stalks. I can’t imagine eating an entire, raw stalk of rhubarb now, but we kids loved to eat sour things and we’d strip the fibrous stalk, savoring the puckery deliciousness.
I instructed my siblings to fan me with the poisonous, fleshy leaves and I pretended to be Cleopatra doted on by her loyal servants.
Years later, Grandma moved to Independence Village in Fruita, the family home was sold, and she died my freshman year of college after a sudden aneurism. Those years of family potluck gatherings in the shady backyard were gone. The fun times of cousins sword-fighting with the long beans of the catalpa tree were gone. And Grandma’s lush, never-ending rhubarb was gone, except for when it sprouted up in my mind.
Six years later, my husband and I got married and bought the house next to my aunt’s old home, and I still thought of Grandma’s rhubarb. I dreamed of rhubarb pie, rhubarb chutney and rhubarb jam. I kicked myself for not asking to dig it up when she moved. I drove past the old house and contemplated trespassing to dig up just a little chunk of the crown. A little pillaged rhubarb never hurt anyone, right? But by then the house looked dilapidated, the roof sagging, parts of a broken-down car in the front yard and a pit bull pacing the back fence. I quit driving past the house.
That spring, I was cleaning up the orchard in our backyard and visiting with our neighbor Laura across the fence, discussing the inventory of all the things we had growing in the yard. I looked down at her feet and noticed some brownish knobs poking out of the soil. “Is that rhubarb?” I asked.
She said yes, it had always been there, and it thrived on neglect. They didn’t even water it and it resurfaced every year. She welcomed me to take as much as I wanted, since it just kept coming back for no apparent reason.
Sure enough, it turns out that my aunt planted the rhubarb there after digging a start from Grandma’s rhubarb, back when she lived at the house next door. Around 20 years later, we moved into our house, with Grandma’s rhubarb growing along the back fence. Thanks to Aunt Jo, Grandma’s rhubarb was waiting for me.
This spring, I watched as the bright-green crumpled fists of rhubarb leaves pushed their way out of the soil in my yard, resurrecting those sleeping knobs of rhizomes and unfurling their lush green canopy. I thought of Grandma’s house and the cousins, and of the old shed and the shade and the long beans of the catalpa tree. I might have to plant one of those.