Lost in a sea of green, I waited.
Though Mom told me to go on ahead, I didn’t see a path so I waited. Surrounding me was a field of leafy greens, all growing in every direction, all wild and free.
Where is the path? Where are the mustard greens?
When I told mom last week that I wanted to learn how to make zaub pos, pickled mustard greens, I didn’t expect that she would take me out to her plot of rented land to pick the mustard greens in her garden. For some dumb reason (myself to blame), I thought she would have the ingredients ready and I would just come over to her house to make the zaub pos. I was not discouraged by the new task though. More time with mom! Since I had had free time and needed a break from writing in the library, I met up with her on a Wednesday afternoon at her plot of land to handle this task.
“Why haven’t you started picking yet?” Mom demanded when she found me unmoved, searching for some direction in this crazy garden. Empty was the bucket by my side.
Unlike the library, there was no “call number” to search up where an item was in this garden.
“All these are zaub ntsuab,” she informed. Mom marched ahead of me to the tree stump next to the patches of zaub ntsuab, and in one quick motion, she struck her knife into the stump like a great Amazonian fighter. The blade sunk deep enough to keep the knife upright. I noted multiple knife marks on the stump as Mom immediately bent right on top of a patch of greens, snapping a head of mustard green off its root. Swiftly peeling off the bug bitten leaves and flicking them to the ground, she tossed the remaining good leaves into the bucket and grabbed for a new head. After plowing through a few, she stood up. “Here you continue.”
She walked back to the stump, plucked her knife out like King Arthur, and commanded, “Make sure to pick the young ones. They make for better zaub pos.” She jabbed her knife in the air towards an unspecified area up the hill. “I have some tauj dub I need to get.” With that, Mom marched deeper into her garden, occasionally slashing her knife at any leaves or twigs that stood in her way. In a few seconds, the kawm that was swinging on her back disappeared into the thick vines of string beans, and silence surrounded me.
What are tauj dub(s) again?
Ashamed at my disorientation in Mom’s garden, I turned to the patches of mustard green. It had been years since I was in a garden or farmed with Mom. The leaves were all green in color, but there were not the same shapes, so I knew they were all not mustard green. Tentatively turning over leaves, I realized some were smooth and round, some trimmed with jagged edges making them look like they were prickly, and some had yellow flowers growing out of them.
Referencing the ones Mom had already picked and mindlessly blaming Mom’s disorganized way of planting to make me feel better about myself, I hesitantly picked the ones with jagged edges. My bucket wasn’t even half way when I saw a thick worm gliding along the roots of the greens making me wished I had chosen a pair of rubber boots instead of flip flops. I definitely was more comfortable at a library than at Mom’s garden.
But at the garden, I was in Mom’s world, and the bucket on my side was not the only thing being filled with contents as questions began filling my mind too.
I imagined gardening in her plot of land was like leisure reading to her. Before eating organic became a health trend, Mom had already been eating organic. Long before I learned about GMOs and health regulations through reading, Mom already knew the differences through taste and experience in the garden.
A place to let her mind wander, a place to escape the harsh realities of life, I wondered about all the knowledge she had stored in her garden. Motherless at a young age and the oldest daughter, Mom took care of her younger siblings until she married as my dad’s second wife when she was “already into womanhood or “tiav hluas nkaj lawm,” (18- to 21-years-old according to what she previously told me).
How did she learn to navigate the garden like how I navigate words on a page? How did she come to be the person she is today? Did her mother ever get a chance to teach her what she’s teaching me? And who taught her how to make zaub pos?
Soon my first bucket brimmed with what I hoped were mustard greens, and Mom returned caressing a bundle of some other leafy vegetables I could not identify. She helped me pick enough mustard greens for zaub pos until we filled all three buckets.
“Come help me with the tauj dub,” she commanded, which my memory of the word came back then. Lemongrass! Duh!!
On the pathless way to the tauj dub, I noticed Mom wore flip flops like me too but waltzed through the garden like she was waltzing on carpet. She lead me deep into a hip-high, grass-like field of lemongrass where we uprooted a dozen stalks. Within a quick five minutes, our kawm was completely stuffed.
Before retiring home, she grabbed an armful of zaub paj, Chinese mustard greens, for me. I even got inspired by the fruitful garden that I plucked a plastic bag full of string beans and broke off two qe taub from the vines for myself.
My amazing mom may not know how to read, but in this garden, she read the garden like literature.