Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden

Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden

by Alexandra Risen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544633360
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 820,724
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 4.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

ALEXANDRA RISEN has published essays in newspapers and online magazines. She lives and gardens with her husband, son, and rescued dog, and blogs at www.foragedloved.com. Unearthed is her first book.

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Sour Cherries

The patterned linoleum of Father's tiny bathroom is curled back under the cabinet, the glue dried up long ago. Everything dries up: glue, skin, love. The cabinet's bottom is sticky and stained with age, crowded with half-empty bottles of aftershave, shampoo, and other toiletries. Mom and Sonia didn't have the courage to clean out the bathroom, so I volunteered. I've decided to stay for a few weeks, now that the funeral is over, to help Mom with whatever needs doing. I'm okay with the worst tasks, perhaps to relieve my guilt for not living nearby and for letting Sonia, the dutiful daughter, carry the weight.

All garbage, I decide. I pour as many liquids down the avocado-green sink as I can; they swirl around the rusty drain stopper and soon I am floating in a stink of Resdan hair tonic and Listerine.

The sharp fumes burn my nostrils. I hold my breath as I wash away a life; it all comes down to some pill bottles, checkered work shirts in the closet, and a few boxes. My arms are heavy as I work, and my hands shaky from lack of sleep. Strange dreams and chest pains now punctuate my ongoing insomnia. Stress, Sonia says. I wonder what a heart attack feels like, and whether Father shouted as he tumbled off that ladder. My dreams are a slide show of the past few days, images I hope to soon erase: Max, heavy with sleep on the pew, thankfully unaware of the terrifying open-casket, incense-filled Mass that no toddler should witness; the line of tombstones near Father's, because our parents and their friends, a group of displaced immigrants, prepurchased a row of plots together when they all turned fifty; Mom's tombstone, waiting, her name, and below it 1924–, as they lower Father's oak coffin into the adjacent plot.

I was transfixed by the blank space, waiting for its inevitable date, on the dusty tombstone. My parents did us a favor by preplanning, but more importantly, they wanted to be together at the end. A symbolic gesture that recognized that they understood each other in ways their children never would. They were right.

We didn't talk about anything much after the funeral except for the one demand Mom made from the hearse's back seat.

"If I'm sick, no machines, no feeding tubes. That's an order. If I can't live on my own, you girls must let me go."

"What if you can still hear us?" I asked. I never did tell her that Father heard me from the depths of his coma. Too much had been said, and not said, and then it didn't matter.

"If I can't live without machines, it's not real life," Mom answered.

I promised, ignoring the sickening dread in my stomach. Sonia escaped into the hazy view through the dust-covered window. I understand Mom's point — she, Sonia, and I watched the doctors remove Father's machines when his organs gave out. Still, my heart's conflicted, and my head's too heavy to think about what I would want if it were me.

Since the funeral, Mom has been in the garden. August is a busy time. She prepares vegetables and fruit for winter during the day, and spends the evenings with Max in front of the television. Mom doesn't understand SpongeBob SquarePants, and Max doesn't understand The Price is Right, but The Nature of Things seems to bridge their seventy-year divide.

I've been cleaning out house cupboards, and I'm surprised by the things I've long forgotten and the sentimental memories they arouse. My first rock collection fascinates Max, especially the smelly yellow sulfur chunks that I picked up from the rocky railroad beds of the tracks that ran directly behind our first house. I twirl a sharp granite rock between my fingers, and I'm suddenly playing on the tracks, creosote in my nostrils, as the trumpet of an oncoming train's horn shoos me away from my rock search. I was never afraid.

I snap back into the present. Mom's canned goods from twenty years ago, in neat dust-covered rows, however, terrify me. I ruthlessly trash them — someone has to save her from botulism.

"What about the garage?" I walk past Mom to the old-fashioned metal garbage cans at the driveway's end.

"Not now." She shakes the dirt from an onion. "Your sister and I can sort through it during the winter. I'll have to sell the car, though."

My chest tightens. I've always hated that car.

"Okay, I'll keep to the closets for now," I say. She doesn't hear me because she's already moved to the shrubs along the south-facing stucco wall: red currants, gooseberries, and chokecherries. Jellies to be made.

Sonia arrives when I'm sorting through the basement closet.

"Look at all this camera stuff. Do you want it?" I ask.

"My basement's full. Why don't you take it?" "No, I'm flying." Father had amassed a sophisticated camera and lens collection, all in their original boxes. "Did he ever use this stuff? It looks brand new."

"Perhaps Max will want it someday? He's already showing his technical side," she says.

She's right. Max is crouched on the floor, his expression intense as he joins plastic LEGO action figure pieces. He's working on For Ages 8+, beyond his years, Sonia observes proudly.

We find a shoebox filled with old crinkled-edged photos.

"These are mostly their friends at parties in the basement," I tell her, flipping through the box. "Want them?" Father didn't have to talk to people if he was behind the camera.

"No thanks," Sonia answers. "You?"

What's the point? They're photos of local Ukrainian friends we know as little about as we do our parents. None of them are family, or maybe they are, because we don't even know if we have aunts and uncles somewhere in the Ukraine. It's not that we don't care; we've become used to not knowing what we're missing. When our curiosity occasionally surfaced, we were too afraid to break the silence, and then it slowly, simply ceased to matter.

"Nope. Although Cam likes to save stuff like this for Max. I'll take it for him."

We fill Sonia's car with "things Max might want in the future." She doesn't have her own children, and I'm moved by her thoughtfulness. She's also a pack rat.

"Where's Mom?" she asks.


"Have you discussed the wedding yet? How's Megan?"

"Megan still thinks we should cancel. It's up to Mom." I can't believe I'm going to indirectly prevent my best friend's wedding.

We walk up the stairs to the kitchen. Mom, in her dirt-covered T-shirt, is stirring instant coffee. Her fingernails are filthy, but she doesn't seem to notice or care. A bowl of lime-green berries, hairy and translucent with thin white stripes, sits on the table.

"For you," she says to my sister. For a moment I sense the closeness between them and I fight the insecure feelings that surface. Mom grows those berries especially for Sonia. And peas, and corn, and they trade flower seeds. I hate gooseberries, and I don't fit in here.

"Why do you like those things?" I ask Sonia. "They look like they come from an alien berry farm."

"Dennis likes the jam," she says. Edmonton is the world's preserving capital. The summers are so short that gardeners grow what they can for two months and store it for the other ten.

"Mom, about Megan's wedding," I start.

"I thought about it." She puts down her cup. "Your dad was happy she's finally getting married. So am I. And Peter is such a handsome man. Ukrainian, too. The wedding must go on."

What? I look at Sonia's expressionless face. Since when did marrying into our culture matter? I wonder if Sonia is mentally justifying her marriage to a Brit while I defend mine to an Italian. I thought we were good if we simply stayed away from Russian Communists. And Father happy, for God's sake? Impossible. He was silent, angry, or nothing at all, but definitely not happy.

"Your friends won't criticize?" I ask Mom. Suppose not, they're all Ukrainian.

"Marriage comes first," Mom says as she heads toward the door. "Besides, life is for the living. I'm going back outside if you girls don't need me."

Some things never change. Maybe we do need you. Maybe, just once, just this time, we need you.

Sonia picks up her bowl of berries. "I'm off, then."

Once Mom makes a decision, it's solid. I call Megan. "Good to go, we all agree. It gives us something to look forward to." I secretly hope this bad timing doesn't doom her marriage.

"So stuff like this doesn't only happen in movies," Megan says. "Although Peter's way taller than Hugh Grant."

"Did you know my parents were thrilled you decided to marry a Ukrainian?"

"Wow," Megan says.

"That's what I thought. I better start baking. Lucky that Mom planted carrots this year."

The cake is mildly crooked. I blame the old stove — it's worn out from baking hundreds of apple pies. Mom's plentiful dark red roses allow me to disguise the slope with petals strewn across the cream cheese frosting. Megan is touched that the cake's ingredients come from the garden — Mom's bounty fed much of our neighborhood over the years. The wedding is a subdued success; Mom gets her fair share of attention from Megan's family, and I decide a burgundy-and-beige wedding is an excellent remedy for a funeral.

"Don't forget your Nintendo," I say to Max a few days later. I cram clothes into the suitcase. It's time to go home.


I run down the stairs to find Mom sitting on the stoop that leads to the kitchen, her back against the wall.

"Are you okay? What happened?" Her skin is pale, the color of the yellowed white wall paint behind her.

"I lost my balance. It's nothing," she says. But she's not standing up. She touches her head.

"You bumped your head. I'll get ice." I shouldn't be going home.

A bruise starts to form near her eye. "I'm fine," she insists. "I don't know what happened. My head was buzzing, and I felt dizzy."

"Mom, this is a big house for you —," I start.

"I'm not moving," she says. "I'm not so old yet. I'm just tired and hungry."

Sonia arrives a few hours later. "Mom should sell the house," I tell her.

"She's not ready. It's too soon after the funeral."

"It's dangerous. She fell. She'll be rambling around alone in here."

"I'm close," Sonia says. "I'll check in, don't worry."

"I'm not selling the house." Mom walks into the room. "You girls forget that I've been alone since I went to Germany. I was seventeen, and I survived the war. I think I'll be fine here."

That old line we've heard before. We know she was a farm laborer, but not much beyond that. She's never talked about the war.

Mom's upper arm sports a bright red mark to match her cheek. She looks like she's been beaten. She brings a bowl of cherries to the sink, washes and pits them, letting them drop into the enormous Mason jar that sits on the counter. It's the same jar that sat there every summer, right under the window beside the tin breadbox. A bottle of Stolichnaya, the next ingredient, is nearby. I want to ask why she uses Russian vodka when she despises most things Russian, but I bite my tongue. We don't ask questions in this family, at least ones that include the word why.

"Who still drinks your liqueur?" I ask instead.

"John next door. He helps with the snow. I'm sure he won't mind doing a bit more now that your father is gone. He can help me sell the car."

This discussion is over. She isn't moving. She pours enough vodka into the jar to cover the cherries and stirs with a stained wooden spoon.

"Besides, I need to take care of the old lady, and bring her food and all that. She's in a wheelchair and no family left."

"Who?" I look at Sonia.

"She's eighty-seven," Sonia says. Ten years older than Mom. "From the village."

"Well, then, I guess that's decided," I say. What village?

"Our turn will come," Sonia says, as I walk her to the car. "Let's let her have her garden for as long as she can. We all need to hang on to something."

My sister is right, as usual. Although she didn't see Mom's face after the fall.

"She keeps locking herself out, forgetting her keys. What if she leaves the stove on?" "I'll get her checked out, don't worry."

I head back to Max and our packing. Mom needs her sense of purpose — her garden and some mysterious old lady. And Sonia's berries. I may as well go home.

That night, I dream of Mom as a seventeen-year-old girl, in one of the only stories she shared. The recurring dream is my sole marker of her youth, embellished over the years, and cherished by my subconscious in an otherwise barren family history.

Mom holds a woven twig basket in a tiny orchard near a farmhouse. She carefully cuts sour cherries from their stems and lets them drop into the basket. She knows better than to pull at them like she did as a child, breaking the stalks and making her mother angry. Fresh air from the distant mountains whips at her hair, and in my troubled sleep I feel it blow across my face. She whispers, as if she is having an argument with herself. Across the lane, another farmhouse has boarded-up windows. She walks into her home when her basket is full, taking a last look at the dying plants across the way. Her eyes are sorrowful; her lips are turned down in angry hatred.

"The Germans are coming," whispers her eldest sister at dinner. "They're looking for workers. I heard so in the town. Posters everywhere!" She chews anxiously on a small pork rind.

"I know. Better them than the damn Communists," says Mom, and her mother rises from the rickety wooden table and smacks her face. Her sister jumps from the table and draws the curtains over the small kitchen window.

"Be quiet," she whispers. "Our friends are dead for such words."

"Be quiet? What's the point of living, then?" Mom asks. "Our people lost the chance to be a nation in the last war — what's left?" No one responds, as her parents sip homemade cherry liqueur from tiny glasses.

"He has no future," Mom says, pointing to her little brother, whose tears stream down his face as he tries to silence his sobs.

I wake suddenly. Only the dream, I tell myself, falling back into fitful sleep, visions floating in and out.

German soldiers marching, a sea of greenish-gray wool tunics and caps. Black boots kicking up dry soil as they search for young "volunteers."

My young mother gripping her little brother's hand, saying, "I don't want to die here. I promise to come back and help you."

Sun rising over the golden wheat fields. My mother picking a few cherries from her family's trees, laying them beside her brother's pillow while he sleeps, putting a few dark serrated leaves into her pocket.

My mother heading for the village meeting point without looking back.

"Mommy, Mommy, wake up." Max pushes my arm.

"Wha-what?" I open my eyes to see him fearfully examining my face. "Are you sad?" he asks.

I touch the wet skin under my eyes. I need a few seconds to recognize the familiar bedroom walls.

"I was having a bad dream. It's okay now, snuggle up," I tell him. He curls into me, and I breathe in his body's warmth and hold his flannel pajamas as we fall back asleep.

"Sonia's driving us to the airport," I tell Cam on the phone the next morning. "I can't wait to get home, but I feel guilty. What will she do?"

"She'll manage. She's tougher than you guys think. Give her some time. By the way, Wesley called. He sent you a gorgeous sunflower bouquet."

"That's kind."

"Believe it or not, he said something about showing us a house."



1 pound fresh sour cherries, stems and pits removed
• Clean and pit cherries and add to a 2-quart Mason jar or other glass or ceramic container.

• Add vodka and mix thoroughly. Cover.

• Let macerate for 4 weeks at room temperature. Stir daily for the first week, weekly afterward, with a wooden or nonmetal spoon.

• After 4 weeks, add sugar, stir thoroughly, and cover. Let macerate for another 4 weeks.

• Strain the vodka mixture through a stainless steel strainer into a large bowl.

• Gather the remaining cherry pulp into cheesecloth and squeeze out liquid into same bowl.

• Pour liquid back into Mason jar, close, and age in a cool place for 3 to 4 months.

• Siphon off the clear liqueur, leaving sludge behind in jar, or filter liquid through paper towels and then coffee filters (twice each) to clarify. Store in clean sterilized bottles.

See page 267 for information on safety and sourcing of plants.



The anonymous hidden house with inconspicuous owners is in our neighborhood: right across the street, in fact. Although we've seen their car coming out of the long lane, we've never met. I've pictured them living in a tiny converted garage — there can't be much space back there. I'm curious because I love hidden places, like the secret houses that I built out of shoeboxes as a child. This can't possibly be the house that Wesley found for us?

It's been on the market for a year without a "for sale" sign. Wesley walks us across the street and down the long, narrow lane that runs about fifty yards between and behind two neighboring houses.

"Privacy and a garden." He grins, his white teeth sparkling from his handsome tanned face.

The driveway opens to an asphalt courtyard in front of a rectangular one-story ranch-style building with a flat roof.

"The brickwork looks like what they used for schools in the sixties," Cam says.

"Maybe," Wesley agrees, "but wait until you see the back. An acre of garden."


Excerpted from "Unearthed"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Alexandra Risen.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Prologue: Roots xvii

1 Sour Cherries 1

2 Knot weed 11

3 Lily of the Valley 25

4 Cattails 41

5 Apple Trees 55

6 Maples 68

7 Periwinkle 83

8 Primroses 97

9 Sumac 111

10 Serviceberries 125

11 Roses 139

12 Bleeding Hearts 156

13 Wild Grasses 169

14 Irises 181

15 Oaks 192

16 Ginkgo 202

17 Willow Trees 215

18 Mulberries 227

19 Wisteria 240

20 Clay 252

Epilogue: Harvest 263

Foraging Guidelines 267

Acknowledgments 269

Bibliography 273

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