Sunchokes and Country Blokes

freshly foraged sunchoke

This is a story of sunchokes and a country bloke who I thought was a city boy. A story of love and loss and more love. A tale of hopes and dreams and digging holes to find sun soaked gold at the end of an unexpected rainbow after the storm. Most importantly, it’s a story about how simple happiness can be, if we only allow it.

You know that line at the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Willy Wonka says to Charlie, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted…He lived happily ever after.”

This line has been echoing in my head since one monumental weekend last June.

After spending the last seven years as a widow raising my kids alone, I’ll admit that I have a pretty hard time imagining that I can actually have everything, or somedays anything, I want. Since losing my husband in 2010 I have managed to survive on my own, raising our three kids without any major damaging incidents. Everyone is alive, we have food and a warm home, and more than we need when it comes to daily essentials. I have a good job, have managed to make some great relationships with family and friends, and my kids are, quite frankly, the most genius, resilient, magical beings I’ve ever met. I have everything I need. The universe provides.

But what about the things I want?

Being a young widow is hard. Being a pregnant young widow is harder. Being a pregnant young widow with two other kids is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It required me to build up walls emotionally and spiritually, just to get through all of the changes I was faced with in that first year. In a matter of 13 months, my family structure went from two adults and one child to a family of three children and one adult. Needless to say, seven years later, most days I am satisfied just to appear relatively sane to the outside world.

But there is still that nagging idea of happiness.

I had given up on my hopes and dreams for so long that I had nearly forgotten them. When I met Eric, I was stuck in a cycle of shame and self-depreciation, still reeling from the loss of my life plans and unable to find the motivation to do more than just keep on surviving. I had no vision left for my future. I could see nothing outside of the endless days and nights of loneliness, single parenthood and knew only brief but sporadic respites from my self perpetuating pain.

I had dated a couple of times since becoming a widow, had even fallen in love again, but I’d been abandoned, taken advantage of, cheated on and beaten down emotionally as a result. I wasn’t ready to get involved again, but I had found a wonderful work husband, and a friend I wanted to keep for as long as I could. And he made me happy, even before we chanced to enter the realm of romance.

I remember the first time I told Eric about my hopes and dreams. It was a stretch just to offer them, as I had just barely begun to remember what I wanted from life and what my true aspirations really are. I told him, while we were talking at work over messages one day what it was that I wanted, really wanted, in life. And words are powerful, so let me tell you too, so I can also remind myself.

I want fruit trees and berry bushes and gardens. I need water nearby. I want a barn, to fill with canvases big and small to paint on. I want a simple life. I want to provide for myself and my family and be independent. I want to create, with my own hands. I want to teach my children how to be self sufficient and in tune with our natural world. I want to eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m thirsty and sleep when I’m tired. I want to love and be loved. 

Eric didn’t seem like the type to buy into the country living dream, but the more we talked and as we became close friends, I realized that he did indeed have some of the same desires. I remember he mentioned wanting to raise Jerusalem artichokes a couple of times, and we discussed gardening and his exploits in backyard chicken farming. I was a little surprised to find so many common threads with this fifty-something newly divorced computer programmer. He spoke of the giant house and all the possessions he got rid of in his divorce and the successful businesses he had owned and worked with in the last thirty years of his life. He seemed like the poster boy for the suburban American Dream that so many people buy into, but which has always seemed like a nightmare to me.

Yet here I was, working in a corporate marketing agency, selling my soul for a cubicle and a comfortable salary, letting my own dreams wither on the vine. Until Eric broke down his own emotional walls, braved the waters of learning to swim as a single man after a lifetime of marriage, and finally bridged the gap between a work-friendship and taking a chance on me. I’d dropped hint after hint about my attraction to him, but he was steadfast that he didn’t want anything romantic. I understood that completely. While we don’t share the same lived experience, I do have some good insight into what it feels like to have a long term relationship end against your will. And so we continued to talk and grow our friendship, as well as our working relationship day by day. I loved him enough already as a friend and co-worker to know that I would rather enjoy a shared platonic affinity as opposed to pushing the envelope, and him, away.

Just when I’d given up that little glimmer of hope that I might at least get laid out of the deal, he turned the tables on me. The universe provides. And I love surprises!

But this isn’t a story just about love. It is a story about how simple happiness can be.

Fast forward a couple months into our relationship, through some twists and turns and down a country road smack dab between Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas to a little piece of property we like to call Frog Island.

The first weekend my kids and I spent with Eric at his dream place (he’s a self professed dream catcher and I believe he is correct) we woke early and started exploring the land. He had just mentioned again that he had always wanted to find and grow Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes. Being completely unfamiliar, I asked him what they looked like, and when he showed me a photo of the plants, I exclaimed with joy! I had just seen a stand of what I had thought were mutant-tall black eyed susans toward the front of the property.

We both nearly skipped to the clump of tall yellow flowers I had seen near the stand of pampas grass just moments before. There, lo and behold, was a grouping of shoulder height sunchokes, petals bloomed and tall stalks pointing down to the buried treasure awaiting beneath them. Eric’s eyes were like a fifteen year old seeing his first naked woman. No joke. The man’s happiness leaked from his pores as he started to dig down into the hardened earth.

Our first foraging attempt at Frog Island resulted in the fulfillment of a longtime goal for Eric. We managed to secure a small haul of sunchokes, and he found some ramps nearby that he harvested as well. I had already brought a large garden zucchini out for the weekend, so I decided to make fritters for breakfast, adding the ramps and sunchokes in for extra flavor. When it comes to the sunchokes, the water chestnut like critters are so tasty, it’s easy to see why many folks advise against ingesting too many of them raw. They were crisp and rich, earthy and deep in all their glory.

fresh picked ramps and sunchokes

I can’t express the joy I felt, peeling and washing the freshly dug sunchokes and preparing them for breakfast. Such a simple task: dig, wash, peel, shred, then use my own two hands to create a meal made from the earth given goodness in front of me. Garden zucchini, farm fresh eggs from the new neighbor, garlic from the farmer’s market the weekend before, ramps and jerusalem artichokes from a hole in the ground fifty yards away. The only ingredient I used that wasn’t local was the flour to bind the latkas. Even the sunchoke flowers were put on the table to grace the meal. Nothing wasted, nothing taxing the land or our pocketbooks. So simple. And the most delicious meal I’d had in weeks, and trust me, we eat well.

All of this is to say that simple happiness is possible. Finding and foraging for food is possible. Creating the life we want is possible. Hope is not dead. Love never dies, it only multiplies.

And yes, it is possible to have everything you want in life. Yes, I can be happy.

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” -Maya Angelou

When I was about four years in to widowhood, I had given up my hopes for happiness. My sister died, a crushing blow that only compounded the hurt I already held inside every day. I turned away from all the healthy coping mechanisms I had, fell into the deepest depression I have ever known, and ceased to believe that I would ever again experience a life that was worth living fully. I had fulfilled my life’s purpose, and the rest was just darkness, void of vision. I believed that my life course held nothing more than getting my children through childhood, adolescence and that my only goal was to see that they made into adulthood in one piece. In short, I gave up. Completely.

Of course, time does indeed heal, and even though I had lost two of my most beloved humans on the planet, the pain receded long enough for me to make a fleeting wish. I wished that someday I would at least find companionship of a certain order. I was convinced that as an overweight woman in her late thirties, raising three kids and carrying a train car full of baggage, I was unlovable. But I still made that wish.

I held out one tiny scrap of hope that at some point in my life, after my kids were grown and I was left alone, I would find a man who would want to share time with me. Someone who would simply go away for a weekend with me, or take me out to a nice dinner occasionally. Someone with whom I could have intelligent conversation and intellectually stimulating interaction. That was what I decided I was deserving of, and all I wanted from a man, and I was willing to wait another 15 years to find it.

Oddly enough, I didn’t have to wait. Instead, I’ve been blessed with exactly this and so much more. While I don’t want to make this all about falling in love and finding Mr. Right after losing my best friend, father of my children and soul-mate…it is. The universe provides.

And I’m here to tell you that if you allow yourself, as I am attempting to learn, you can have everything you ever wanted. And you can be happy.

For me, the sunchokes were just the beginning.




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