Tuesday, June 06, 2006

My History in Produce

It's the time of year that I love most. The rich period of time where spring is melting into summer, when you can finally drive with your windows down after months of riding in the stale air of a car that's been rolled up for the winter. The time where we open the windows in the house, and wake up to birds and the lawnmowers of our ambitious, retired neighbors. Businesses take to propping open their front doors, running the risk of renegade flies and bees within their walls to inhale the fresh warm air they've been craving since October. It's the time of year when I can finally pack away my wool sweaters and furry coats, my scarves and hats and gloves, to make way for tank tops and breezy skirts. Open toed shoes, bare legs, bare shoulders. There's something quietly delicious about walking out of my front door on the way to work, right into the gentle heat of early morning; no coat, unable to see my breath, no need to warm up my car. It's heavenly.

This time of year reminds me of elementary school, of breaking out my Jem & The Holograms silk-screened shirt with matching shorts, wearing my young hair in a pony tail, and waiting for the bus on our blacktopped driveway before Kentucky had a chance to heat up. It reminds me of selling lemonade on the weekends to my neighbors, mowing the lawn in my Keds, riding my bike around the block. It reminds me of recess, of running around behind my private school - Beyond the jungle gym where I fractured my arm, beyond the swingsets and the long pools of dust beneath them, created by hundreds of six year olds dragging their feet. Beyond the crater tucked in the middle of our field, the one where the girls chased the boys to steal kisses that were immediately wiped away and remedied by a cootie shot. All the way back to the fence separating University Heights Academy from the homes behind it. The fence was chain link, stretching the entire length of the school, containing us all of us K through 12 students and our playground equipment, as well as the kiln that the art class used, the tennis courts, the barn used to store athletic equipment. To make it blend in better, the administrators or the parents, or some unseen force, had planted a wide array of plants to disguise the unfavorable tarnished gray of the fence. Thick, waxy leaves of ivy gave way to the soft petals of morning glories, flora that flourished with little attention, that was happy to climb along and take over any immobile structure it happened to be next to. All the way at the end of the school's property, threaded through, around and over that fence, there was a patch of Honeysuckle. Big bushes of leaves, with long, miniature lily-like flowers peeking out through the cloud of green. We'd run down to the edge of the playground, searching for that section, until we saw the flowers. And we'd pluck them slowly, careful to keep the tiny bloom intact. And, when we retrieved the flower of our choice, we carefully removed the center stem to reveal its hidden secret. One small, shiny teardrop of sugary nectar. We'd suck it from the flower, delight in its quiet sweetness, and immediately search for another. This time of year reminds me of playing in the area behind our house that was home to my mother's garden, digging holes to China in my sanctioned area of dirt, while my mom planted and plucked fresh produce from the vines she'd cultivated. We ate tomatoes right from the furry branches on which they grew, my mom reaching through the required support system of thin metallic scaffolding surrounding the heavy plants. We swatted away flies and bees, wiping the thick Kentucky air from or sunkissed foreheads, smiling as the pink juice ran down our chins.

But we moved away from Kentucky when I was young, and the quest for honeysuckle was forgotten for years. The climate in Nevada left much to be desired in the way of homegrown fruits and vegetables, so the garden of cucumbers and tomatoes and lettuce that my mom left behind in Kentucky was never resurrected. Honeysuckle and tomatoes were too delicate for the desert, so she grew rosebushes instead. We began buying our veggies at the local Albertson's, but they were harder and not as rich as the fruits I grew up eating, leaving us all unfulfilled.

It wasn't until we relocated to Pennsylvania that we were able to once again enjoy real, straight-from-the-ground food. Instead of plucking natural confection from plants, I took to purchasing bags of fresh, dirt-caked tomatoes from the farm I passed on my drive from town and to my parents' house. In front of their sprawling fields, at the end of the driveway that leads to their centuries-old farmhouse, someone set out a rickety, aged-wood table. They pile it high with baggies, twist-tied closed to contain the vegetables grown in the massive garden just beside the house. An old Folgers coffee can, wrapped in brown paper, sits at the edge of the table, "$2.00 a bag. Two bags per person, please" is scrawled in a shaky hand along the front. And dollar bills float around inside, safe even though always unattended, due to the grace of the honor system of a small town. Cars pull off to the side of the narrow road as soon as the farmers start piling bags on the table. Dollar bills are exchanged for bags of zucchini, cucumbers, squash. But I only stop for the tomatoes.

I buy my limit of two bags and rush home with them. They're warm and soft from the sun as I pull them from the bag. Hesitantly, I rinse them in our sink, washing the dirt from its skin. I slice them into thick patties and put them on the biggest plate I can find. They smell like earth and youth. They're juicy and ripe, a brighter crimson than anything I've ever seen in the piles of Shop Rite's produce section. They taste like elementary school, like digging to China, like my Jem & The Holograms silk screened shirt. They smell like humidity, watching my father come home from work in his Army fatigues, playing outside in the bluegrass with my mom and baby brother. They taste like home.


portuguesa nova said...


These were all over where I grew up and I cannot find a single one around here. I suspect we're a little too close to Detroit for any sort of honor system.

Tiffany said...

You just made me so homesick tears actually sprung to my eyes!

And after the morning conversation I just had with my boyfriend... I wonder why it is I'm still living where I am...

Beautiful. Though I'm going to have a hard time explaining red puffy eyes in the meeting I'm off to in 5 minutes!

anno said...

Wonderful writing!

Kentucky has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the country. Especially in spring. I used to drive down in April just to see the redbuds in bloom in the Smoky Mountains, just to prove to myself that warmth and green and flowers were coming again.

I'd forgotten about sucking the nectar from honeysuckle. Thanks for reminding me.

Liz said...

What a wonderful post, I could feel the sun and it brought back somany memories of my childhood. I have the urge to drive out to the nearest farmer's stand and have fresh veggies.

Anonymous said...

Awww...I happen to remember your obsession with Jem and the Holograms....I had forgotten about your broken arm though.