PEACHES ARE RIPE

The day is too pretty for a funeral. We file in and nod to everyone we know, which is everyone, slide into a pew next to my father. I’m glad he’s here. In the middle of the front row – exactly where I was sitting six months ago – is a grieving son. A neighbor. I wonder if he’s memorizing the weave of his suit trousers. I know the threads of my grey dress slacks by heart. But then the minister’s saying something about Uncle Harry’s hands. Was she inspired by my own sort of ode to my mother’s? Or is this something people always remark on at funerals? I look at my own hands; small, square, simple. I see no secrets in them.

Harry and Pauline owned the little market at the center of my world. I remember Harry’s big, rough hands counting out penny candy for me into tiny brown paper sacks. Years later I went to the store to interview him for a book. We sat across from one another, two shy people looking anywhere but up. I felt like a little girl again with my mother nudging me ahead of her and forcing me to speak. He beat me to it. “I don’t have anything to say.” Not exactly the lively interview I’d hoped for. He told me Pauline was the cook and I wondered how many years ago Pauline had died, if she’d make a better interviewee at this point. The man was known for his baking. People swooned before his strawberry pie. He must be able to at least contribute a recipe for the book.

When I said that he stood abruptly and walked away. I thought I’d made him mad. It occurred to me I might be asking for the family secrets. But he came back with Pauline’s recipe book – an old photo album with those plastic covered sticky pages filled with hand-written recipes and pages torn from magazines. “I miss her every day.” We went through the book together, with me asking about recipes, trying to draw the area’s culinary history out of him, and him making noncommittal grunts. I put my finger on a yellowed index card labeled Fried Catfish. “Aw, you don’t want that.” Yes, I did. People here don’t cook like that anymore. I asked if he’d ever eaten eels. He looked directly at me, narrowed his eyes. My grandfather used to catch eels for his mother. Granddad told me she hated them because they seemed to come back to life, wriggling in the fry pan, but she never turned away anything they caught.

“People ate what they had. Catfish, eels, rabbits…”

“Groundhogs?”

“Wouldn’t you like a pie recipe? Everyone likes pie.” Everyone does like pie. At least here, they do. I copied Pauline’s recipe for pecan cream. Brief and to the point, it was a recipe for those who already know how to make a pie and just need an ingredient list. It reminded me of him. So much left unsaid.

“So much was left unsaid” the girl at the podium is saying of her grandfather. I think of my own. The conversation about the eels comes back with his descriptions of when they were easiest to find – the morning after a heavy rain – commingling with stories of rabbit hunting and plucking chickens. “People used what they had. They didn’t talk a lot. They worked.” This was said as we chatted comfortably on his front porch, sharing a peach pie. As an advantage of either hauling produce for decades or being good friends with the owners of the orchard or both, a trailer full of peaches was left down in the drive every summer. Granddad picked up the phone and shouted at us all. The first call was gruff, but generous. “Peaches are ripe. Come get ‘em.” Click. With eight children and umpteen grandchildren I don’t know how he knew which of us had come and which hadn’t but believe me, he knew. He’d say your name like it hurt. “Get down here and get these damn peaches!” I always got that second call and sometimes a third, the fire of which would burn your eyes if I were to write it here. Now these were not first-quality peaches. They’d been dropped, bruised, were found flawed or inferior. They were unsellable. Then they sat in the sun a few days. Soft peach flesh turned to hot molten goo. The bees loved it. So, days late, I’d climb into the trailer to pick through damaged peaches, fending off gnats and angry wasps. I earned a sting for every peach wrested from the bees. From the porch Granddad made a disappointed clucking sound and called to the kitchen for my grandmother. She’d have a paring knife in her apron pocket and, impervious to bees, take a knick or a slice off this one and that until I had a bushel of the best second-rate peaches a body ever saw. She knew how to make the most of what she had.

Is it wrong to sit at a man’s funeral and wish he’d left you his strawberry pie recipe? After my grandmother’s we all stood around at the grave unsure what to do next. Her death had been unexpected; there were things left unsaid. We took the only comfort we could in doing what we knew she would have done. We gathered the flowers off her grave into bouquets. She wouldn’t have let those blooms go to waste.

The young girl at the podium takes her seat. She has neat little hands and I wonder how much she has of Pauline and of Harry in her. Leaving the Gothic lines and dark sanctity of the church, we step into sunlight. In the parking lot a truck from the orchard has PEACHES ARE RIPE painted on its sides. Life goes on. Make the most of it.

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