How long is “for a while?” In hindsight, perhaps I should have asked that question at the outset of this adventure. With hindsight, I will say that “for a while” can prove to be highly variable; sometimes much too long, but in our case, much too short.
It began when our thirty-something son, Pat, an over-the-road truck driver with no permanent home, announced that he wanted us to meet his new bride, Lily. Lily proved to be a lovely 26-year-old singer/songwriter and a very recent immigrant from Cameroon, West Africa. She had fled her homeland in fear for her safety after participating in student protests against the oppressive leader of Cameroon. She also professed to be a princess, which we came to understand means her family chooses the king of their village. The central government has little day-to-day control over the villages. It leaves local property disputes and the like to be resolved by the local kings.
Remember how I said my son has “no permanent home?” So what to do with a wife who has almost no family in the U.S., doesn’t drive or have a job, and has a husband who is on the road for weeks at a time? You know already, don’t you?
“Dad,” Pat asked me, “can Lily stay with you and Mom for a while?” My wife, Kathy, eagerly embraced the prospect of another daughter. I politely did not ask,“How long is a while?” and innocently assumed it would mean a few months at most. (And I had been so enjoying our empty nest!)
Our new daughter was ecstatic to see that I had a garden, although she was visibly disappointed when she asked me for hot peppers and I showed her my garden jalapeños.
“Well, those are nice on a pizza, maybe,” she said as gently as possible. “But they’re not really hot peppers.”
Her joy at seeing my squash vines, which she insisted on calling “pumpkins,” was a bit puzzling until we learned that one of her favorite dishes is cooked pumpkin leaves. Lily would gather them, peel the prickly stems, roll up the leaves and stems, then slice and cook them with her idea of hot peppers—habañeros—green peppers, scallions, and a bit of beef. Who knew that pumpkin leaves are not only edible, but delicious, and, according to African nutrition standards, good for the blood?
One day, as we were driving past a local produce farm, Lily spotted several acres of pumpkins. She begged me to stop: the sight of so much bounty was almost too much for her to believe. I asked the owner of the farm if we could pick some pumpkin leaves.
“Just leaves?” she said.
I gave her the quick version of African culinary preferences, and soon we were filling shopping bags with leaves. This was during our second year of “for a while,” and I was not growing enough pumpkin leaves to please Lily. At least I had managed to grow an abundance of habañeros and Thai peppers, which proved to be a favorite flavor. Unless you’ve eaten Cameroonian food, you may not realize that virtually every dish, whether pumpkin leaves, spaghetti, fish, chicken, or pepper soup, contains hot peppers—and often ginger and other spices.
I learned this the hard way. Whenever I asked, “How many peppers are in dinner tonight, Lily?” she would invariably answer “two small, small” even when I could count four habañeros—and the fire in our mouths that evening was accompanied by tears in our eyes and sweat on our eyebrows. We learned to let Lily take the first bite. If she cleared her throat, beware: the peppers were quite “friendly,” in her idiom. Many dishes, like her burning fish (broiled whole tilapia, including the head) were accompanied by a sauce I came to call “green goo,” a liquified mix of hot peppers, onions, leeks, parsley, and African spices. It was my job to go to my “farm” (the garden or greenhouse) to get the fresh ingredients. Many of Lily’s culinary creations required tomatoes and green peppers, which I was able to supply in season, much to her satisfaction. Coming from a tropical region, she was accustomed to fresh produce year-round and had some difficulty adapting to canned or frozen versions. Luckily, hot peppers freeze very well, so I never had a problem supplying her with “two small, small” peppers.
The following Spring, Lily secured some true African pumpkin seeds, which grew prolifically out of their raised bed and over the lawn. They never produced fruit at all, just the prized leaves. They also sent down roots about every six inches along the 15-foot vines, which made Fall cleanup a real chore. We also planted what Lily called “country cabbage,” but I can’t tell you what it tastes like. It didn’t produce the leaves Lily wanted, but it did bolt and reseed itself, producing spindly plants again the following year.
For a while” continued, and, a year or so later, Pat and Lily presented us with their own version of “small, small”—Duke Charles, a beautiful blend of African and American, with the sun-tan complexion and soft curly hair often displayed by biracial babies. I quickly made it my job as Grandpa to hold and snuggle him as much as possible. He seemed more than happy with that arrangement. But even “for a while” has to end sometime. When Duke Charles was approaching two years old, Lily felt the need to move to Maryland to be nearer what family she has here in the U.S. In short order, my Snuggle Buddy was far away.
I mourned the loss of my grandchild, and Kathy mourned the departure of a daughter. While I was glad to get my kitchen back (Lily had ruined my Swiss Diamond pan), I sorely missed my little Charlie. Just remembering the fiercely protective feeling that rose in me whenever I held that warm, sleeping baby on my shoulder makes me smile through the sadness.
So how long is “for a while”? For Kathy and I, it was nearly four years.
Way “too small, small” a time. ❖
This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #136.