Sunday, September 27, 2015

I found an old Jolly Rancher . . .

 in a pocket yesterday. It’s a hard candy, for those of you who have been in a cave for the past 30 years. When I unwrapped that watermelon-flavored candy and popped it into my mouth I flashed back to a memory that, until that moment, I hadn’t realized I possessed.

Not the memory of my mother doling out Jolly Ranchers from her purse as she walked the endless aisles of the Boston gift show winter after winter between my sister and me. Not farther back to hard candy unwrapped surreptitiously (and hopefully quietly) during the sermon of a Friday night Temple service.

No. When the taste of this Jolly Rancher hits my tongue I am walking down the sidewalk of a tree-lined street with my sisters, heading toward Cameron’s drugstore with money for penny candy. Although I suppose, since I already had the candy I would’ve been heading back from Cameron’s drugstore, back to my maternal grandmother’s house in Rhode Island.

Was there candy within walking distance of my house in Morristown at that point? Had the Plaza shopping center been built yet? And if so, would I have been allowed at whatever age I remember I was to walk up our street, cross through a neighbor’s yard and an empty field to come out just across the street from that shopping center parking lot? At what age was I allowed to cross that street by myself money in hand or pocket and walked to Rose’s department store for Sweet Tarts or Pixie Stix?

I could be wrong but I believe that walk to Cameron’s was the first time I purchased candy on my own. I remember a sidewalk wide enough for the three of us girls to walk abreast, shaded with mature trees. I remember how much longer the walk was to the drugstore than the walk back, and how the sidewalk on the way back had a jungly side, with vines and what felt like a steep slope down into dark trees.

I could be wrong if you compare this memory to memories my sisters might have. I might well be wrong according to any picture taken of that particular section of road at that exact moment in the early 1960s. I could be wrong almost anywhere, except in my memory. In my memory I am never wrong and the taste of a watermelon Jolly Rancher is as bright and sharp today as it was then.

It’s an odd duck, memory. Crystal-clear and sharp edged one moment, a dark deep closet full of muddled shapes the next. 

In our family the closet is deep indeed. Almost no memory of mine matches up with anyone else’s. In fact, my family has very few communal memories that are not vague and ambiguous. Even snapshots are interpreted differently by those of us who are left.

This lack of clarity bothered me for many years as I struggled, usually in vain, to match my memories to those of my parents and my siblings. I’ve spent years trying to decipher these differences in memory, to figure out who was right and who was wrong. Years wondering which of the memories I had were mine and which had been twisted by someone else to fit their definition of the past.

There are very few definitions left in my family. My father has been gone five years. My mother, whose recollections were never that clear to begin with, has end-stage Alzheimer’s and no memories left at all, at least none that anyone but she can decipher. One of my two sisters has distanced herself from me. And with this narrowing of my frame of reference I eventually came to realize something remarkable, or at least remarkable to me. An understanding of the word “definition” that was as sharp as the memories brought forth by that taste of watermelon candy.

I don’t need other people’s interpretations of my past. Sharing memories with other people is lovely and can broaden a remembered experience. But- I have rich images and recollections that belong only to me. And that’s okay. 

Even pictures, though helpful, capture only a split second in time.
What happened before and after that freeze-frame moment tells the rest of the story. And everyone’s story will be different.

That taste of a watermelon Jolly Rancher is on my tongue.

Monday, September 14, 2015

I saw pawpaws

at the farmers market this morning. It’s not the sort of fruit you usually see for sale. Pawpaws bruise very easily, so they’ve never been a viable commercial crop.I imagine Mitch gathered rather than grew them.

 But we’ve got pawpaws lining the road to the cabin. Pawpaw is an understory tree, and like wet feet. They grow on the banks of the little creek that runs through the property down into Kerrs creek at the bottom of Muddy Lane.

It took me a long time to realize we had pawpaws on the property. They have an unassuming flower that resembles a brownish upside down tulip about as large around as your fingertip. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, they are easy to miss. And the fruit itself is even harder to see. Even after you’ve found a couple hiding among leaves the exact same color on a branch it’s hard to find more on the same tree. Or to spot them on another tree. And they don’t give any indication that they are ripe, except to fall off that branch and into the underbrush to be eaten by squirrels and deer.

Which doesn’t really do us humans who are hoping to harvest them any good. All you can really do is wait until the first weeks of September, and then begin to shake the trees. If the pawpaws fall off, they are probably ripe. Or at least getting close to ripe. And that’s how you harvest. You shake the tree, and try to spot where the fruit falls. It helps to have another person watching and fetching, or by the time you have finally located the fallen pawpaw, slid down the muddy bank, and retrieved it from the fallen leaves you have lost sight of the fruits you have spent so much time locating in the branches above.

Until you've shaken the tree, you don’t know if the fruit is ripe. It’s a crap shoot, because maybe the fruit was ripe and has already fallen. Or been eaten by squirrels. Or perhaps you’re shaking the wrong tree, and the fruit you remember seeing is on a different tree entirely. Because maybe only one out of seven or eight trees is mature enough to bear fruit. And some years it seems like there’s no fruit on any of the trees.

This year promises to be a most excellent year for pawpaws. I am not the greatest of pawpaw spotters. My beach glass and mushroom spotting eyes do not seem to be able to switch to pawpaw mode. Deborah is a much better spotter than I am, and together we make a pretty good team, as I am as good a retriever as any Labrador.

I went out on Saturday and shook a few trees. Some of them have grown so big that the only way to really shake them is to get a running start and hurl yourself at the tree with your arms outstretched, palms facing forward. While this is often effective, it can wreak havoc on your wrists and elbows. I leave these trees for a joint effort, one of us pushing while the other one pulls. The trees I shook are not much bigger around than my two wrists together, but they rise 20 feet or higher into the air.

The pawpaws were taunting me that day. I could see them, some of them on such low branches I could practically grab them. But they were not ready to fall and even the most dedicated shaking could only loosen three of them. Well, four, but only three I could find. The fourth, should any squirrels be reading this, is somewhere near the old culvert buried just past the state road maintenance sign. You’re welcome.

And of course the ones that fell are nowhere near ripe. They sit on the kitchen island now, mute reminder that some things simply cannot be rushed. They will eventually ripen there, but by the time they do we will have been out to the trees several more times and they will have been joined, hopefully, by numerous siblings and cousins, almost all of which will ripen within a week of one another. And this will leave us scrambling to scoop the pulp and freeze it, as neither of us find it possible to enjoy more than one or possibly two in a single day.
A pawpaw will ripen and rot within the space of 24 hours. You can’t rush it, and you can’t keep it. It’s there for that brief window of your enjoyment, and you may have as much as you are willing to work for, but you may not hoard it for it will not last. At least not in its fresh and most beautiful form.

I learn the truth of pawpaws every fall at this time, and every year I vow to remember, through the fall and into the winter this lesson from the earth about the fleeting nature of perfection. To take what is given freely when it is ready to be given and to enjoy but is in front of me for the time it is there. 

It is more difficult a lesson to remember that it seems it should be. But each year, if I am fortunate and pay attention I  have a chance to learn it once more.