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Megan Mayhew Bergman

How to Make Collard Greens


Her hair fell into the skillet. 

This is how you make good collard greens, I said.  With hot sauce and sugar.   Sugar keeps the bitterness away. 

But your mother knew more about bitter tastes than I.   She rinsed her mouth with water before eating, the angry wash of medicine inside of her body made even peaches taste of metal.


Her hair fell into the pages of my open book.  I closed the book and vowed never to open it again.  I wanted to keep those pieces of her inside forever.  


I would like grandchildren, she said one night over dinner.

What I couldn’t say was this:  it is strange to make love in the face of grief.

Another thing I couldn’t say:  I am not ready.

And another:  I may never be ready.

Her hair fell into the sink.  It mixed with my hair.  And yours, her son.  That summer, I watched it climb the walls of the sink when I washed my hands.


I arrived home, obsessed with health, lettuce leaves from the market curling over the top of my canvas bag, and thought of her garden.  Marigolds warding off deer, sugar snap peas clinging to the wire fence, buttercrunch lettuce bursting from the newly warmed Vermont soil.  Zucchinis the size of my arm, mustard-colored flowers coiling around them, raspberries underneath the shadow of the corn.  Your father plucking rocks from the rototiller, pretending to smile.  The arthritic horse grazing, unfenced.


In college a professor read to us from Pliny.  He read:  some were praying to die from the very fear of dying.  Many were lifting their hands to the Gods; but the greater part imagined that there were no Gods left anywhere.

I had a dream about the streets of Pompeii.  It was day but darker than night.  Vesuvius was blazing.  The rich were pushed out to sea by their slaves, canvas sails limp with smoke.

We were in the streets.  All of us.  Waiting.  People always say that they would make love their last day on earth, but we were scared out of our fucking minds.


We didn’t count days, we weren’t scientific.  We merely fell into each other after nights at the bar.  You said to mark the calendar, and sometimes I remembered.  Some days I was not convinced I should love anything more than dogs.

My cycle was not with the moon, it was slave to irregular moons, rogue moons, infidel moons, moons looping Jupiter, praising Saturn.  But we became astronomers.  We would find the right time.

This one thing we could give her.  We should give her.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give her.


I used to think I could get pregnant from toilet seats, long kisses.  Still a virgin at seventeen I once drove thirty miles to a town I’d never been to, a town that wasn’t a town but a highway exit, and unwrapped a pregnancy test in the bathroom of a video lottery joint, fluorescent lights popping overhead.  I hovered over the toilet, still in my soccer uniform, speed-reading directions as I urinated on the tip of a plastic wand.

The white tile was smeared with mud and hair, a trickle of brown water leaked from the back of the toilet.  I got the result I wanted.

I ate two bags of potato chips on the way home, licked my fingers, sang to the radio with the windows down.

Now, with envy, I think about that ripe body.


I wanted to be the kind of woman who could deal with a snake in her backyard, but was not.  I found one, as thick as a pencil, the color of creamed coffee, coiled on the patio in the late afternoon sun.  It tried to look menacing. 

I thought of your mother, holding the Gartner snake that has lived in the pool shed for years by the tail.  She was standing in the grass, wearing her blue one piece bathing suit, a baseball cap, loose shorts, smiling.  Behind her the Stargazer lilies were in full bloom around the pool.  The dogs stood on the first step, submerged to their bellies in unnaturally blue water.  

My next door neighbor came by with his seven-year-old, who smiled and put the snake in a Mason jar.

I’ll release him in my yard, he said, running off.  I pictured him laughing at me over dinner.  That woman afraid of the tiny snake. 

I recognized courage more often than I used it.

I remembered your mother no longer had eyebrows.  I remembered the story she told us about the abortion she performed on the German Shephard, how she had cried over each fetus.  I remembered nights, driving home from dinner with the headlights off in the country dark, where she named every bone in a dog’s body.


Fifty cents worth of collard seeds could feed a family of four for a year.  That’s what the farmer told me when I bought two bunches. 

What about a family of two?  I asked.

Don’t forget the neckbones, he said.  You have to boil them with the neckbones till they want to fall apart.

I stood in front of the sink, remembering the sound of her kitchen with all of us in it.  Our house was quiet; the city spilling noise into the vacant lot behind our fence—donut trucks, sirens, lawn mowers.  Somehow dog hair had already woven itself into the asparagus heads.  I scrubbed the collards clean for half an hour, snapped peas until my fingers bled. 

Would we be those people?  The people with the quiet house?


We painted our bedroom blue.  It came out darker than I wanted, truer even, as it always does, never the color you think you are choosing in the store.  I examined it from the bed, naked, your head on my hip.  The spaniel curled into the backs of my knees.

You said, I love you, and stared at the ceiling fan.

The way you cook is making me fat, you added.


Once a week we ate collards.  I washed the giant leaves, pressed them flat into kitchen towels to dry.  I ripped ribbons of leaf away from the central stems and tossed them into simmering stock.  The kitchen smelled like a back alley cafeteria, a place my cornbread had nothing on. 

I insisted on draining the pot.

This here, I said, is the pot liquor.  Full of antioxidants, beta carotene.

I was steeling us against disease, you understand.  Preparing my body for life.


I started saving voicemails, afraid I would lose the sound of your voice, her voice, anyone’s voice that I loved and needed to hear again.

It’s me, I’m coming home.

Would you remember to pick up milk?

I was just thinking about you.


Her hair fell into everything.  It disappeared, then started to grow as if it belonged to someone else.  Curling in new places, astonishingly silver.


I sat with my face in my hands at the doctor’s office. 

We don’t have much time, I said.

The nurse handed me a tissue, then forms for fertility testing.  A set of embarrassing plastic cups. 

I don’t know if it matters, but I’m late this month, I said between sobs.  But I’m always late.

I sweated through my gray t-shirt as I waited for the test results.  I was sure they’d given me the pregnancy test out of sympathy. 

The rabbit is dead, the nurse whispered. 

I did not understand.

In other words, she said, you’re pregnant. 

I returned the cups.


I couldn’t tell you or not tell you.  My voice was lodged somewhere else.  I pointed toward my flat stomach. 

Yes, I finally said. 

Standing there with your bike in the kitchen, red mud on the carpet, you grinned awkwardly.


I was afraid of babies and afraid of miscarriage and afraid of everything.   These feelings had not disappeared with the blue line.  Pregnancy’s magic had limits.  It could make me a mother.  It could not make me fearless.

Your mother came into town the week of my first ultrasound. 

I didn’t realize it was vaginal, she said.

We pretended not to be embarrassed.  Then, on the screen, a pulse.  A sac, rimmed in light.  A flashing heartbeat.  Proof.


I felt I was growing a boy.  Seventeen weeks and six days. The night before we found out, she kicked for the first time, responding to the warm hand you’d wrapped around my stomach.  As if she knew it was what you needed.


We spent time in Vermont with your family.  Winter was stronger than the year before.  I fell in the driveway, skinned my hands on the ice.  Ate Italian sugar cookies by the woodstove.  Let the cats roost in my lap.

Your mother took walks in the snow, watched movies with the corgi on her blanketed lap. 

You stayed busy, fixing doors, mixing gasoline for the snow mobiles.  We ate dinners in front of the television, pretended nothing was wrong.  I did not sleep for two weeks.


When my grandmother was alive, she made New Year’s supper—collard greens, hog jowl, black-eyed peas.  Time to eat our “mess” of greens, she always said.  I had turned up my nose those years, loathed the smell of her pot, thought her superstitious and country.

This year I put a pot of greens on, heavy on the brown sugar and hot sauce.  It didn’t matter that we were up north, or that the collards were frozen and fell from the bag like green ice chips. 

I had never wished so hard for a year of good luck.


I collected myself when we returned home, planned things.

I took it easy on mothers now.  If I was bad at directions, parallel parking and math, it was my own fault.  Not being breastfed was inconsequential to my development.  I was in charge of my own flaws—they were not given to me.

Suddenly, my own mother was a saint, her sandwiches priceless and perfect.  I used to begin sentences on mothering with, “I will never.”  Now I said, “I hope I can be as good.”

What harm would I unleash?  A new version of myself lay months around the corner and I could not predict what it would be, or if it would be any good at all.


I got to know a body that was not mine.  This body was slow.  This body embarrassed me, solicited looks and spontaneous touching.  This body could not be satisfied.  This body did not know if it was happy or sad. This body made a new bed for the cat at night.  She nested in the slope of my hip, rested her chin on the baby-full swell of my stomach.


Down east, they say a cooled collard leaf can cure a headache.  They say collards got many families through lean times. 

But nothing is working for your mother.  It feels as though we are rounding a cul-de-sac, waiting for a path forward, or a path anywhere.  Our questions are answerless.

You come home from the clinic tired and smiling.  I find you upstairs hours later with red eyes.  I try to wrap my arms around you at night from behind, but my stomach presses on your back, keeps me distant.

I am a grounded bird.  Vulnerable.  Worried I will not be able to fly north if something happens. 


Have I grown this child with cottage cheese, chocolate-covered pretzels, and strawberry yogurt? 

It is time again to plant the garden in Vermont.  Last spring we were with your mother.  We grabbed handfuls of heirloom seeds from plastic bins at the feed store, bought seedling kale and collards.  Our fingers froze in the newly defrosted soil.  She reminded us to make moats around the seedlings—to help them receive water, but keep them from drowning.  We planted the collards six inches apart, a half-inch into the rich compost.  We wanted everything in perfect rows, dreamed of arugula drizzled in olive oil and salt. 

Down here, the first collards will mature in March, though purists wait again for the first frost.  They’ll be boiled with neckbones and butter, hamhocks and cider vinegar.   The leaves will be torn not cut, tossed into black cauldrons, served with cornbread to soak up the pot liquor.   We’ll head to the farmer’s market for a few pounds.  A mess of greens, my grandmother would say.   

Unsure of what the spring holds, we will learn the new sounds of sleepless nights. We’ll get by doing the things we know how to do, and those we don’t. 

Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman is finishing her MFA in fiction at Bennington College.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, and Oxford American.  She lives in Shaftsbury, Vermont with her daughter and veterinarian husband.

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