It definitely took a village to raise my son. One of its most pivotal members was Magda Helmuth, founder of and long-time teacher at Purple Dragon Daycare, the pre-school that my son attended from just under three years of age until he started kindergarten upstairs at PS1 Elementary. Under Magda’s tutelage and tender touch, Patrick refined his early reading skills, acquired some rigorous math chops, and prepared for his climb to the second floor.
But one of Mrs. Helmuth’s greatest gifts to me and my son was her Famous Green Bean Soup.
I struggled with ill health in those days. Exhaustion gripped me. With a full-time law practice and no partner, I barely got chicken nuggets on the table. Moreover, I had not learned to cook anything after I left home. To make matters worse, I can’t myself digest meat. Patrick endured a boring menu of badly composed casseroles and store-bought cookies. At school, though, he ate whatever Mrs. Helmuth served, which corresponded with the Letter of the Week. A was not for apple but for artichoke. B stood for borscht. C represented carrots. And so forth, marching through a litany of healthy foods with a strong German bent. If memory serves, Mrs. Helmuth immigrated during or shortly after World War II. She taught with a modified version of the Montessori method with which Patrick already had some familiarity from his first two years at another school.
Her methods proved successful. Our children learned as most kids do not. I vividly recall standing outside my son’s fifth-grade traditional classroom with another Purple Dragon parent at a parochial school. She smiled at me and shrugged as we prepared to find out how our bored-to-the-gills sons fared in the crowded class. Do you think we made a tactical error, she asked. Sending our sons to the best teacher they’ll ever have before they reached the age of 5?
Mrs. Helmuth held my hand through a few frightening days. When I collapsed on the stairs with the first of many shingles episodes, she made sure my son got to someone’s house who could care for him until I got out of the hospital. She phoned me from the emergency room on his birthday, three stitches testifying to the stray bolt that another parent came to fix after my son’s injury. She made a similar call when a child pushed him backwards into a marble window sill upstairs during first grade (four stitches) and when he spiked a temperature while I was in a trial. I got to the school shortly after five o’clock. She wrapped my sleeping son in a quilt and carried him out to the car. He never even stirred, she was that gentle.
Patrick loved Mrs. Helmuth. He would do anything for her, including getting himself out of bed and dragging me to school for the first session of the day when he attained Work Group status. Through it all, he begged me to make some of the food that she cooked for him, most especially what he called “Mrs. Helmuth’s Green Bean Soup”. I constantly demurred, while paging through my Joy of Cooking and my mother’s battered copy of Cooking the Austrian Way for something that a four-year-old might consider “green bean soup”. No luck; and I never had time to ask in the brief moments at the start and finish of each day, with other parents mingling around and coats to gather, backpacks to sort, and mittens to collect.
One day I stopped at the grocery store and came upon Mrs. Helmuth pushing a cart through the produce section. I greeted her somewhat softly, with an air that I sometimes feel myself adopting when I’m unsure of my standing with someone. But she beamed, and spoke my name in her lovely accent. We chatted for a few moments. Finally, I gathered some courage and asked her about her green bean soup. Patrick loves it, I admitted. I’d like to try the recipe.
She looked puzzled. Then suddenly, a flash of realization flitted across her features. She laughed, a throaty laugh which made me think of my Austrian nana. I will show you, she said. We paraded with our carts down several aisles. She stopped in front of the frozen vegetables. Reaching into one section, she lifted out a bag of green beans. I cook them in water, she explained. Then serve each child a few beans and some of the liquid. Your Patrick, he always asks for more.
That night, for supper, I made her recipe. My son crowed. He ate three helpings from a little blue Fire King bowl, one of a set that his Syrian-Austrian grandmother had given me a decade before his birth. After supper, we read books and sang together. He drifted to sleep with a dreamy smile on his peaceful face, whispering to me, Thank you for making Mrs. Helmuth’s Green Bean Soup, Mommy.
I don’t know if Magda is still alive. But wherever she is, in this world or the next, I want her to know that I am thankful for everything she gave my son, especially the delight of her famous green bean soup.
It’s the twenty-second day of the one-hundred and nineteenth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Three friends who met at Purple Dragon and stayed friends through high school.