Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk

Cherry Season

Taste and spirits passed down over centuries

1.

MY MOTHER’S MOTHER kept a set of painted wooden nesting dolls on top of her television. When I was small and went to her house, I would take the set apart and line up the five dolls on her living room floor, side by side, from biggest to smallest. The biggest was my grandmother’s mother, Maria Florence, and next were my grandmother, my mother, and me. I never knew what to do with the smallest doll, the only one that would not twist open and reveal her secret. I usually named her after my sister.

 

Maria Florence hailed from a place where cherries grow wild, a village between the current border of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhine River. The village is technically German now, but the area is liminal, and who it’s ever belonged to is fuzzy. The cherries of this region are morellos, dark skinned, fleshy, and tart. They look sort of like bings, the sweeter eating cherries that grow in the U.S., but smaller and less sweet.

Morello cherries were brought to Europe by the Romans, whose empire’s eastern border was the Rhine River, and whose soldiers were given cherries as part of their provisions. It is said that you can trace the paths of old Roman roads through their former empire by following the growth of wild cherry trees. The soldiers spat the pits as they marched.

 

I love cherries. Given a pastry shop, given a choice, I would choose cherry streusel, cherry-filled bismarcks, cherry kolache. I love eating cherries out of hand, worrying the flesh from the stones with my teeth. So do my mother, my sister, my daughter. So did my grandmother, who lay awake at night, pregnant with my mother, craving cherries. So did Maria Florence, who would have grown up on her mother’s cherry cake, cooked cherries simmered in red wine and cinnamon, drunk cherry liqueur.

I like to believe that I inherited from the women in my family a genetic disposition toward cherries—that cherry is a taste we nurtured over many centuries.

 

Other facts about the women of my family: Our hair never turns gray, except for one streak at the left temple. Each of us gets angry or passive at the very moment it would have been more useful to do the opposite. Each of us has said at one time or another that we did not feel mothered by our mothers. “I know my mother loved me,” we all have said, “I just never thought she liked me much.”

 

Cherries are members of the rose family, a sprawling group whose leaves are leathery and oval shaped, with jagged edges. Strawberries, blackberries, cloudberries, and raspberries are all members of the rose family. So are apples, pears, and quinces. Cherries are part of a subgroup within the rose family, the plums, and are the closest kin to apricots, peaches, nectarines, almonds—drupes, stone fruits with a single pit.

The flowers in the rose family are cup shaped, with parts that come in sets of five: five petals, five sepals, stamens in multiples of five. If you cut open an apple crosswise, you will find a star shape in the fruit’s center, made from the seeds in the apple’s five ovaries.

Store-bought cherries are expensive because cherries are fragile. They must be harvested by hand, and the harvest itself is chancy: their skin absorbs water, and too much rain can make them burst. I’ve stood at my kitchen window and watched an entire summer’s crop on our tree be ruined by a single downpour. If they’re not ruined immediately, any rainwater left in the bowl of the fruit, that little dimple at the base of the stem, will soon cause the skin to crack.

 

The scientific name for cherries is Prunus avium, “plums for the birds.”

 

Cherry season represents the heyday of summer, and is said to be a couple of brief weeks. But my experience, based on the dwarf tree in my backyard, is that cherries are only ripe for picking for a week at most. In the spring, our tree is foamy and laced with blossoms, filling our kitchen window. We get a few days dizzy with white flowers with pale yellow stamens, and then, eight weeks later, another few days dizzy with red fruit.

In folklore, the presence of cherries is always interlaced with the idea of fleeting time and a season of pleasure, a gift that is given and then gone.

 

Beyond the hundred-year-plus association of cherries and female virginity, there’s an unlikely history between cherries and cuckoo birds. Like cherries, birds in general are strongly associated with the passing of time, and with change—probably because of the ways their migration patterns mark points in the wheel of the year, and how they sing at specific times of day. So birds have always decorated mechanized clocks; roosters especially tend to adorn clocks in cathedrals. But cuckoo clocks were first designed in the Black Forest, near Alsace-Lorraine.

It is said that a cuckoo needs three good meals of cherries before it can stop singing. That a cuckoo perched in a cherry tree can tell the future. If you chant Cuckoo, cherry tree, please won’t you tell me, how many years until I die, the number of times the cuckoo sings back is the answer.

 

In a medieval play, a pregnant Mary and Joseph are walking by some cherry trees. Mary craves cherries, and asks Joseph to pick them, because they’re out of reach. Joseph, still bitter, tells her to ask the guy who knocked her up to do it. A moment later, the trees all lower their branches.

One afternoon when my sister and I were children, my mother took us to a cherry orchard with her. The farmer invited only my mother to climb the ladder. I sat on the ground and played with my sister, near tipsy bees sucking on smashed red fruit and the slowly filling cardboard flat. I remember the sight of my mother’s legs on one rung, the rest of her vanished into the leaves, and the man smiling up at her, his chores forgotten. Everyone liked to talk with my mother.

At the end of the day, my mother allowed me to climb the ladder while the farmer wasn’t watching. I hoisted myself up a few rungs until my head was in the canopy of leaves and clustered fruit and filtered light. I remember the leathery leaves, and how my mother and sister disappeared so quickly. The tree muffled all the sounds of the neighborhood. All you could hear were the wind and the shuffling of formless color. I wrapped my hand around one of the branches crisscrossing what I could see of the sky. The bark was smooth and gray, with a series of small scars. I felt vulnerable and very alive.

Recently, I asked my mother about that day. What orchard did we go to? She smiled. I bet that was at Aunt Teressea’s house, she said. Really? I asked. She grew confused. I don’t know, she said. I just don’t know.

 

 

2.

MY MOTHER’S MEMORY has been growing increasingly erratic for years. Then, a few months ago, she had a double brain aneurysm, and one of them burst. In one moment, she was talking to my father as she wiped down the kitchen counter with a sponge; in the next, she developed a terrible headache and forgot how to walk.

 

The presence of cherries is always interlaced with the idea of fleeting time and a season of pleasure.

 

She had brain surgery twice, and learned to walk again. Then she came home. She still has trouble judging how far away she is from objects, like a chair she would like to sit in. But she retains most of her older memories and all of her quick wit.

The part of her brain that was flooded with blood and permanently damaged is the amygdala, which takes its name from the Greek word for almond. It’s the almond-shaped section of brain that processes memory and emotion.

In the literature our family was given, memory problems are referred to by a more clinical name: dementia. The aneurysms are described as looking like berries on stems.

 

My mother is not actively dying, so when she asked me to start working on a eulogy for her memorial, I felt unprepared. There still were infinite versions of her, infinite stories to tell.

 

For example: My mother taught fifth grade and had a reputation of being tough, fair, and fun all at once. She got on well with boys, especially ones usually labeled as problem kids. Our house was the sole one in our neighborhood that was never egged, that never had its Christmas lights broken.

Or: Her yellowed paperbacks were stacked on every surface in our house. They entered and left the house by the bagful. Beginning when I was ten months old, she took me in a stroller to the library for ten new books every ten days.

Or: My mother made cutout sugar cookies for us to bring to our class every holiday, hearts and shamrocks and pumpkins. She cut flowers from her garden, wrapped the stems in a damp paper towel and then aluminum foil, and instructed my sister and me to give the bouquets to neighbors, our piano teacher, our bus driver, anyone she thought needed a lift. She made a point of befriending janitors and secretaries, people others often dismissed.

Or: My mother was not blessed with patience. Once, when my sister and I had not cleaned our room, she threw a doll cradle against the wall and broke it. Another time, when I had left my bicycle parked behind her car in the driveway and she was late for a PTA meeting, she banged so hard on our side door that she smashed the glass with her fist. She made us lie to our father about how it happened.

Or: My mother was terrified of amusement park rides. My sister and I did once cajole her into riding a kiddie roller coaster with us. We laughed when she cried.

 

No matter what, when I write about my mother, I am cherry picking, and picking cherries does not enjoy a good reputation. One dictionary says that to cherry-pick is the practice of choosing and taking only the most beneficial or profitable items, or the deliberate practice of presenting only the ideas that support a preexisting narrative. It is selfish, inaccurate, and frowned upon. To pick cherries is to distort objective truth for one’s own gain.

Is that all I do when I remember—cherry-pick?

 

I used to have a massage therapist named Jim who was as much a spiritual advisor as he was a bodyworker. He had spent a decade as part of a semimonastic order in Germany, and when the order dissolved, studied with a healer in Denmark. When I asked a question like, Do you think you’re doing the right thing? he would answer with a cryptic, I don’t think, I do. He often said, It’s perfect the way it is. One time he told me to look at my mother, my mother’s mother, and as far back as I could in my matriarchal line. I was to think of what all of us had in common, and something we had all left undone. That’s your task, he said.

 

 

3.

MARIA FLORENCE came to Michigan from Alsace-Lorraine as a teenager and eventually married another immigrant. (We never refer to him by name, only as “The Prussian.”) They had a farm with cows and a herding dog named Shep. They planted a garden and lots of fruit trees and built a grape arbor. Every summer they canned and pickled over three hundred quarts of fruit and vegetables—tomatoes, cucumbers, cherries, and beans.

Maria Florence and The Prussian did not care for alcohol. Yet they made a winepress, and they thought nothing of making wine and fruit alcohol illegally through Prohibition. They drank one small glass every morning with breakfast, believing it to be a tonic for health.

Kirschwasser, or kirsch, is a whole-fruit liqueur, by which they mean that some of the cherry stones are ground with the fruit as part of the mash. This is done to make the liqueur more complex, a little bitter and almond flavored, instead of sickly sweet. Kirsch was created by monks in Alsace-Lorraine. It is considered eau de vie, or “water of life,” because it was first created in the hope that it would cure sickness. The etymologies of the words for many other types of alcohol, like vodka and whiskey, involve the words water and life as well.

I lived in France for part of my college years in the city of Tours, where I studied language and literature. I used to eye the bottles of eau de vie in a shop window on my way home to my host family. The bottles were jewellike, with important-sounding contents and handwritten sepia-toned labels. The most beautiful of them was the Poire Williams, a curvy bottle with a soft fat pear in the bottom.

One day I went into the store to ask the shopkeeper about the Poire Williams. He tried to convince me that the glassblower forms the bottles around the fruit—mais oui, mademoiselle!—but finally admitted that the farmer ties the bottles to the branches over the pears while they are still buds, creating des serres, hundreds of tiny, perfect greenhouses, all over the trees. (I imagined dozens of bottles hanging from a tree, tinkling like wind chimes, but I would come to learn that the farmers wrap the bottles in burlap sacks to prevent breakage.)

Once the pears are ripe, the farmers remove the bottles from the trees, wash them, and fill them with brandy.

The shopkeeper declared, Il faut que vous mangiez la prisonnière! I must have looked baffled—the prisoner?—because he pulled a long, thin knife from behind the counter, then mimed sticking it down the bottle’s neck, slicing, and spearing out slices of pear. Then he shrugged, smashed the invisible bottle, and rinsed his hands of the sticky invisible shards.

I imagine my gestating self as a pear in a bottle. All my life I’ve felt bound by an invisible form—able to see outside myself, imagining the ways I might be different, but never actually able to change in any significant way. There are times when I feel that I have been shaped from my beginning. Only a few years ago, after I had a daughter of my own, did I start to feel more at peace with the image.

 

Not everyone needs to become a parent to achieve perspective. But I did, and further, I needed to have a daughter. Once I became her mother, my body knew how fiercely my mother loved me. I could eat her up, even on the days when I’m bored or annoyed. Go ahead and roll your eyes. But why bother? At age eight she does so herself. She dodges my kisses, which I am told are sort of gross. There is always this separation, though, a pane of glass—which, if I’m being realistic, might only be a healthy sense of self.

 

I don’t think my husband and I have ever used the word choice this much. Make a good choice, we say about everything from staying calm when being asked to put on pajamas to selecting healthy snacks. We emphasize her power to create her world, get along, succeed, find happiness.

But I also see what my daughter cannot. She has my eyes, but John’s mother’s nose and chin. She opens her mouth and tells me a wish she has, and it is word for word one my sister expressed at her age, forty years before. And this hope is an idiosyncratic one, something my daughter could not possibly know my sister ever desired.

Inside every question I have about mothers and daughters, I find another. They open and open into infinity, as in the poem “A” by Henrik Nordbrandt: Already in the word’s first letter / the word already is there / and in the word already, the whole sentence. / In the sentence are sentences / as the almond tree is in each almond / and a whole almond grove in the tree . . . .

 

 

4.

WHEN MY MOTHER was being treated for her aneurysms in the ICU, my father and I drove to the hospital, and he told me his theory about death and family. When you’re born, he said, it’s like they put you on a ladder. All the people in your family who are older than you are a few rungs higher. Every time someone is born, or someone dies, everyone moves up a bit on the ladder.

 

I do not wish to speak of my mother in platitudes. If it is true that funerals are for the living more than the dead, then on that day I would like to talk about my real mother. Funny and rowdy, fiery and fiercely loyal and prickly. Let us revel once more in my actual mother before we lay her to rest.

In my eulogy, I would talk about the way my mother delighted in possibility.

I would describe the dinner during which she and my sister and I all lamented that we didn’t like the names our mothers had chosen for us. My mother suggested that we all pick new ones, and so we did. We became Mary Nell, Rosemary, Cynthia. And when my father, Bernie, arrived home late and we all shouted, “Hi, Steve!” he just shrugged and walked into the kitchen to make a sandwich. My mother held in her laughter, eyes daring him to ask.

I would talk about the December afternoon she sat at the kitchen table with my sister and me through the blue hour, teaching us how to cut snowflakes from folded sheets of paper. Her silver shears went crunch sshh crunch sshh like footsteps in the snow. The wonder of watching her unfold paper newly turned into fresh-cut snowflakes, over and over.

Most of all, I remember the day with the cherries, and how, before we went home, she let me climb the ladder into the tree. How that sudden shift in perspective she allowed me became a tiny and dizzying moment of transcendence. And how those few minutes kept opening and unfolding for the rest of my life.

I am in my late forties now, and I stand where she stood, half-seen in the trees. I am finally learning what it is to be an adult, to have a mother, to be a mother, to lose a mother.

 

Here’s another thing about eau de vie: it’s fermented, then double-distilled. If alcohol is created through distillation, it’s referred to as a spirit.

The meaning of spirit as being simultaneously a kind of alcohol, a soul, an essence, and a part of the Trinity happens in a roundabout way. It all starts with the Arabic word for eyeliner, al-koh’l, which once upon a time was a fine powder created through a process of sublimation.

Alcohol became a more general term for any distilled substance, because the process of making eyeliner looked a little like distillation. Eventually, alcohol or spirit came to mean something pure, an essence released by the distillation process from the physical, or the more gross, as one sixteenth-century Brit explained it.

 

—and anyway, I keep wondering: how do you capture, really capture, the spirit of a person on a page?

 

 

5.

MULTIPLE WOMEN across generations in my family are said to have visited each other as ghosts.

My great-grandmother died in a bed at my grandmother’s house in late August 1936, only a few days before my grandmother gave birth to her first child, a daughter. My grandmother claimed that while she and my grandfather were in the bed holding their newly born girl, the ghost of her mother appeared in the doorway, dressed in her nightgown and smiling at the three of them.

I used to wave off this story as post-birth delirium, but my grandfather saw it too. He said, Go back to bed, Mother, and the ghost of Maria Florence disappeared and never returned.

 

Inside every question I have about mothers and daughters, I find another. They open and open into infinity.

 

The stroke that killed Maria Florence might have been an aneurysm. The condition is hereditary and most common in women.

The night before my grandmother died, nearly sixty years later, I dreamed that she and I were driving in her old station wagon, and stopped at a glass-paned greenhouse. She said to the man, I’ll take all the plants you have with yellow flowers. The man began to pile them into her back seat. The back seat was soon full of yellow gladiolas, daffodils, rosebushes with their root balls wrapped in burlap, tulips, forsythia. It was too much. I told my grandmother to ask the man to stop. She said no, because she was leaving, and I needed the plants to have a happy life.

I woke, but was probably not really awake. It felt as though she were sitting on the edge of the bed, smoothing my hair the way she did when I was little. I was in school, eight hundred miles away from her. She was healthy. She had just sent me a birthday card with a check in it. The next evening her heart stopped.

 

Around the time my grandmother dropped out of high school to nurse her mother, who had stepped on a rusted spike and developed tetanus, the song “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” warbled from radio speakers. The Great Depression was kicking in: increasing numbers of Americans were losing their jobs, major banks had begun to fail, and the singer asked, The sweet things in life to you were just loaned, so how can you lose what you’ve never owned? Maria Florence stayed alive by drinking a mixture of whiskey and raw eggs through a straw. My grandmother never graduated, but kept her school books, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Tennyson’s poems, until she died.

 

The one time I was really afraid for my mother’s life in the hospital was when she started talking to her parents. They were in the room, she said. Over there in the corner. She looked at us as if we were incredibly dense. Don’t you feel the spirits?

I can’t imagine my mother’s ghost smiling from a doorway or smoothing my hair. More than anything, my mother hates to be bored. When I came home alone from school, calling uncertainly from the doorway, “Mom? Are you there?” my mother would at times hide for several minutes before jumping from her hiding place, hollering bloody murder. I picture my mother’s ghost doing something more along those lines. I was always so mad when she did that, but after a while I was glad to see her.

 

When I visit my mother these days, I like to go with her to church. As soon as the organ and processional start, her face relaxes and I feel her body grow more solid next to me. She remembers every word of the service. Of all that is, seen and unseen. My mother and I are seekers, though we never talk about that. The questions crackle in an invisible current between us: who are we, where do we come from, where do we go, how should we live? It is one more way in which my mother and I are alike.

I have picked out the verse I would like to read to her, near the end. It embarrasses me a little. My writer friends would pick someone like Hafiz, not Paul from the Bible. But it’s the one I connect with my mother as my mother, perhaps because of the day in the cherry tree, or perhaps because of all the ways that parents so often seem unknowable to their children until after they die, at which point it seems they are revealed, but then become too slippery to grasp. Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And did you know that neurologists used the scent of cherry blossoms in an experiment on mice to prove that a memory’s effects could be passed down for multiple generations?

 

A couple of things I have inherited:

The hand-carved wooden box that Maria Florence carried across the ocean in her steamer trunk. The box was made by her father from a tree that grew near their house. My grandmother gave it to me on the night I graduated from high school, and it was the only time I ever cried while receiving a gift. My grandmother always made me feel seen, in ways other adults never did. I loved the box’s jointed corners and imagining Maria Florence’s hands on the lid, and the forest full of cuckoo birds, where the tree grew. I loved turning the small key in the lock and finding inside, again and again, the letter from my grandmother, the two inexpensive pins that her own mother once wore at her collar, and nothing else.

The pill I swallow every morning with my coffee. I also didn’t mention that all the women in my family have strong tendencies toward worry and melancholy. But I happen to be the one who was eighteen years old in 1989, the year the president declared that the nineties would be known as “the decade of the brain,” with a new focus on neuroscience and pharmaceutical drugs for mood disorders, so I am the sole one of us who holds a prescription, even as I am nearly certain that we all share the same brain chemistry.

I keep emphasizing our likeness, but now I think this may have been the problem all along. What if another way the women in my family are all alike is that we aren’t alike? What if that’s what worried us as girls looking up at our mothers? What if all of us are like cherry trees, different and alike at once?

Or what if the task is not to worry? Now when I hear the phrase neural pathways, I picture the Roman soldiers walking near the vineyards, near the river, nearly two thousand years ago. The soldiers march through sun and shadow, spitting cherry pits, maybe fantasizing about dipping a chunk of bread in olive oil at the end of the day. The young men have no idea that these stones will become saplings, then trees, then more trees—that, thousands of years later, with the empire long gone and every one of their names forgotten, the ghosts of their paths will remain. That the people who live there now, some of whom share my blood, gather beneath those trees every summer. This goes on, generation after generation. They follow the line of trees without knowing where it goes. O

 

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Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two books of poems, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas, and co-author of the chapbook On Marriage. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Southern Review, The American Scholar, Post Road, Poets and Writers, and other magazines. She has received fellowships from the McKnight, Bush, and Fulbright Foundations; been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; and held residencies at the Amy Clampitt House, the Poetry Center of Chicago, and the MacDowell Colony. She is the poetry editor of Water~Stone Review and a professor in The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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