Strawberry season

In the rush of the last week of school, I never make it to the local produce market to get a batch of Hood strawberries for freezing. Hoods are my favorite, sweet beyond sweet, and they are only available for a few weeks in June. We had a few pints this year, but I never got a flat because I was too busy to process them.

The day before I’m supposed to leave for a visit to my parents, I finally make it in. “Strawberry season is almost over,” a handmade sign tells me. “Get them before they’re done.” The Hoods are gone; only Shuksans remain. They aren’t as sweet as Hoods, but they still burst with a kind of flavor I never taste in the pale, uniform, almost-grotesquely large strawberries I see in the grocery store. I buy a flat.

I freeze half the berries, slicing off their tops and placing each on a parchment-lined cookie sheet that I put in the freezer, imagining them brightening a bowl of November granola. The other half I toss into a glass bowl and throw in the car the next morning to take with me as a belated Father’s Day gift.

My son and I head north, his first visit with his grandparents since Christmas, 2019–before Covid, before his discharge from the military. So much has changed.

We have a wonderfully unremarkable visit. We eat lunches out. We watch old movies at night. We sit on the deck and talk. My son and his grandfather go golfing. My mom and I go shopping for an outfit for her to wear to my dad’s high school reunion later in the summer.

After shopping, we get a slice of pizza from a sidewalk window and take it to a table near the beach. It is a perfect day; 76 and sunny, with a hint of breeze.

We reminisce about our visits to town when my children were children, when our time in each shop was limited and every outing included a visit to a now long-closed toy store.

“Remember when we used to talk about how one day we’d have enough time to stay as long as we wanted in the shops?” I ask her. She smiles and nods. “And now it’s that day, and we sit here and talk about missing those days.”

“Yeah,” she says.

We miss the children my children once were, those beings we’ll never get to spend another afternoon with, but This is nice, too, I think. I loved the earlier times–the earlier us–but I love this time, too, even as it contains longing. You’re going to miss this someday, too, I tell myself, and now the moment contains a different kind of longing.

“I guess we never get to have everything we want all at once,” I say.

“That’s for sure,” she answers.

The next day, I convince her that we should make shortcakes for the strawberries. “I think they have some good ones we can buy at the fancy grocery store,” she says, but I talk her into making them from scratch. I’ve been reading Alice Waters’s latest book, and my head is full of her thoughts about the value of making and eating food together.

We spend an afternoon slicing strawberries and sifting flour and cutting dough and whipping cream and talking about the kids and our summer plans and our memories and how these strawberries look and taste like those we remember from decades ago. “I love their ‘ugliness,'” I say. “I’d rather have this kind any day.”

We have to improvise on some ingredients and we aren’t quite sure when the biscuits are done. The idea of cooking from scratch is more romantic than our reality, but I’m still glad we didn’t get the store-bought ones.

“They’ll be fine,” my mother says.

When the kitchen is finally clean and the biscuits are cooling on the counter, we realize our backs are tired and our feet are sore. It feels lovely to sit in chairs out on the deck in the afternoon breeze and sip a cold drink.

My son is napping on the couch. I remember how I treasured afternoon nap time when he was a toddler. My dad joins my mom and me, and as we talk shadows move over us. We shift our chairs to stay in the sun.

Later, after dinner, we eat our strawberry shortcake. The biscuits are somehow both a little dry and a little undercooked in the center, but I love the treat anyway. “Oh, this is good,” I say.

“Well, it’s all right,” my mom says. “The strawberries and cream are, anyway,” she adds.

The next morning, as we’re getting ready to leave, I hear my dad tell my mom that this was sure a great visit. He turned 80 this year, and since the pandemic he and I have begun talking about things that are inevitable. The conversations are both hard and surprisingly easy. It feels better to turn toward than away, to love in honesty rather than denial.

As we say our good-byes, I promise a return in August. In July I’m taking a trip to visit my daughter living on another continent. It was a last-minute decision, the upcoming trip. The timing isn’t great, but when is it ever? We don’t know when she will be able to come back, and if I don’t go this summer it might be another year until I can see her. Sometimes my longing for her hits me like a sneaker wave.

We return to a city bracing for heat like none we’ve ever seen.

In waning daylight, I water everything in the garden, pondering survival and sweating through my shirt. The raspberries look faded and small. Raspberries have always been a July fruit, but this year we’ve been eating them since mid-June. I miss my grandmother, thinking of the day I helped her make raspberry jam and how satisfying it was to write 7/7/77 on each lid. I remember my grandpa driving us out to a farm to pick up the berries, his arm flung across the back of the Buick’s bench front seat. None of us imagined that some of the jam we were going to make that day would be with us longer than he would.

The next morning I get up early to get groceries before untenable heat takes over the day. I hope I might get one more flat of strawberries, but at the produce market there are none. The case is now filled with blueberries. Oh well, I think. It was great while it lasted. I’m glad I got some. There’s always next year.

I know, even as I think the last thought, that it’s more hope than certainty, and I wonder how much of what makes the berries precious is knowing that I can only have them for a fleeting season.

11 thoughts on “Strawberry season

  1. Kathy says:

    Oh my.
    Me too.

    Welcome back. Congratulations on your retirement and on your marriage.

    Enjoy you trip this summer – and the blueberries. I need to go out and pick the black raspberries that grow by the woods near my house. My daughters are all coming home this summer and they all put them on the “foods they must have when home” list.

    • Rita says:

      I bought a pint of big, juicy blueberries, but I can’t wait until the ones in our yard ripen. I’ve found that even the offerings from the local produce market can’t touch the things we grow in our own yard. Except for strawberries. Mine have never been as good as the Hoods. The few I have are being consistently chewed on by some kind of critter, so I haven’t gotten many yet.

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a black raspberry–I’m intrigued. I’m more of a blackberry fan than a raspberry; I’m imagining something that is some sort of combination of the two?

  2. Ally Bean says:

    I like the idea of having a ” wonderfully unremarkable visit.” Those are the best. Your photos of strawberries are the essence of summer. Make me hungry and happy all at once. I’m glad your talk with your father was easier than anticipated. As parents age, discussions need to happen, for the good of all concerned.

    • Rita says:

      After the last year, “unremarkable” is about as wonderful as it gets. The talk is more a series of talks, and it’s never an official Conversation. (The first talk was, but that seemed to clear the air, I think.) I guess it’s just us being honest about mortality as it naturally comes up in conversations. As with so many things, the fear of it (talking about death) was worse than the reality.

  3. Kate says:

    Oh goodness does that forecast looks miserable. Your berries look wonderful though. We have a family tradition of eating strawberry shortcake as dinner for one meal every summer. My mom started when I was a kid. We’d pick up a flat by a roadside stand, and she’d make the shortcakes from the Better Homes and Garden cookbook. I still make them today. A little dry and salty, just a smidge sweet. Perfect for juicy strawberries.

    Thank you for sharing your weekend with us. It sounds like the best kind of ordinary wonderful. (Which hasn’t felt ordinary, so I’m sure that feels all the sweeter.)

    • Rita says:

      The recipe we used was from The New York Times, and one of the comments noted that (with regard to portions) some do eat strawberry shortcake as dinner. That blew my mind!

  4. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    I’m so happy for you. So much happiness this year compared to last. You’re seeing your mom and your daughter are the first two thoughts that come to mind.

    I grew up eating biscuits for strawberry shortcakes in the summer and this made me miss that.

    I’m so glad you are writing again.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Monk ThinkingMy Profile

  5. TD says:

    Such a lovely style of writing here, Rita! It’s beautiful and sweet as strawberry shortcake! Though I have never eaten strawberry shortcake, it sounds sweet. Perhaps the best part is the activity in the making and the sharing of its tasting with love ones. Thank you for sharing your sweet strawberry family story with me!

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, TD. The best part was the making of it–but I highly recommend strawberry shortcake! It is sweet. It tastes like summer to me. 🙂

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