My mother’s birthday was May 12 and we often celebrated it along with Mother’s Day. She was an amazing mother and homemaker. She approached her life as a student, and she was a perfectionist. Nowhere was this more evident than with her cooking, which she practiced almost every day, three times a day along with teatime, but not on Sundays.

On Sundays, Dad, a top-notch cook himself, rescued Mom from her dinner duties – with the exception of Sunday desserts, which she prepared on Saturdays. Sundays, Dad donned his man-apron and took over the kitchen while Mom rested after church, read and wrote letters at her desk.

Dad’s typical Sunday dinner centered around a roast: beef or chicken or duck or pork, with all the many fixings and gravy and condiments. But on Mother’s Day, fiddleheads were the star attraction. They were Mom’s favorite and to Dad, her special day would not have been complete without them.

Dad was a food forager and he took great pleasure in any hunt, but fiddleheads could be a challenge. In my home province of New Brunswick, Canada, as in Maine, they have a short and fickle season, and it became Dad’s yearly goal to make sure that they arrived in time for the celebration. His “go-to” partner was Ansley Moulton, an expert gatherer, hunter and fisherman who kept his hunting grounds secret. Ansley was an elder on the nearby Maliseet Reservation, and our family thought him a native God because of the bounty he procured. He even had a fiddlehead carved on one of his canoe paddles. When I commented on this, Dad said that Ansley’s tribe had enjoyed fiddleheads for centuries, and they believed these gifts from the earth helped them predict the future. Who better to assist with Mother’s Day?

Some ferns are poisonous, but Ansley Moulton, like his ancestors, knew well the ostrich fern, which grow wild along the rivers and stream banks in the Northeast. They pop up through the mat of winter – twigs and old leaves and black topsoil – with a feathery-brown paper-like material covering the coils. Beneath this, they are richly green like the hat of an Irish elf.

Once after a very cold spring in 1968, Dad wondered if Ansley would be able to harvest the fiddleheads or if they had even raised their papery-laced heads above the sludge of winter. For a number of days before Mother’s Day, Dad and we children had discussed this secretly. It was as if we were discussing the possibility of a blight over our entire family. Someone even suggested asparagus as a substitute. “No,” Dad had smiled. “They won’t do.”

On Saturday morning before Mom’s big day, I heard Dad talking to Ansley on the telephone. “I see,” he said. When he hung up the receiver, he raised his shoulders as if to say, We’ll see. Mom was at the stove stirring lemon pudding for a pie. She smiled reassuringly, as if all the fiddleheads that she had enjoyed over the years had allowed her to see the future.

Later that day, Dad returned from the grocery store with a crown pork roast and asparagus. I began to mourn the missing fiddleheads. No other vegetable can compare to them, when they are cooked for the proper amount of time, which is closer to well-done than al dente. In my mind’s eye, I could already taste their rich spring flavor, a taste that hints at the deepest earth and hefty fresh greens at the same time. Steamed and topped with butter and vinegar, fiddleheads, with their succulent surrender, made asparagus an unworthy substitute.

It was late Saturday evening and Mom was having a bath when Ansley pulled into our driveway in his battered half-ton with his canoe tied to the top. Dad turned on the verandah light and then met Ansley in the yard. From the kitchen window, my little brother Aubrey and I watched. Ansley reached into the bed of his truck, retrieving the large wicker basket in which he always delivered the fiddleheads, stripped of their brown lace, washed and ready for cooking. He put the basket down between them. Dad threw his head back and laughed while Aubrey and I began to quietly chant – fiddleheads, fiddleheads, fiddleheads – the beloved tradition rising in us like a poem.

After Ansley drove away, Dad came inside carrying the basket as if carrying something precious from a secret place. On top of the gloriously green fiddleheads a salmon lay gleaming like a pile of silver dollars. Whoa, Aubrey and I exhaled together. If the fiddleheads allowed one to see the future, then what would this glorious salmon bring?

“This fish is Ansley’s gift to your mother,” Dad smiled.

“And the fiddleheads are your gift to Mom,” Aubrey said.

“Just like always.”

Deborah Joy Corey’s third book, “Settling Twice,” will be published in June by Islandport Press. She is the award-winning writer of two novels and many short stories. She lives in Castine, Maine.

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