Olallieberry Memory

Peanut butter sandwiches with Olallieberry jam and a little mac salad on the side. Daily lunch when staying with my grandparents during the hot summers in Santa Rosa.

My grandmother, Vivian, made her jam and pies during the first weeks of June, the only time Olallieberries are available.

Grown almost exclusively in the moderate climate of the northern and central California coast, they came from Corvallis, Oregon. Kissed by morning fog and cooled by the nearby Pacific Ocean, they flourish in California. But when warm weather comes, the berries are done. There’s less than a three week window in which to grab them. Then a long year before another chance arrives.

My dad used to say God must harvest them himself, so beautiful and delicious are they.

Years later when I lived on the coast in Montara with a child of my own, blackberries and raspberries grew wild in the empty lot behind our house. Long pants on to escape their stickery brambles, Mom and I would pick until our colanders were sufficiently full to fashion a pie. But they weren’t Olallieberries, that special cross of a Youngberry and Logan blackberry.

God’s hand for sure, Dad.

My grandmother was raised in an orphanage and I’ve wondered who taught her to cook and bake, and she was good at both. Questions we think of too late, when there’s no one to ask.

She left few recipes, mostly those that belonged to others. No recipe for her Olallieberry pie or jam, or macaroni salad, leaving me free to remember and create on my own.

Just like her. A free spirit and free-thinker in a generation unfamiliar with and unwelcoming to either quality in women, as if it weren’t difficult enough to be Jewish and raised in an orphanage. Or, maybe because of.

I’m sure her flaky crust came by way of lard or Crisco because that was the way of the day. When I first set out to re-create an Olallieberry pie I started with my mother’s recipe for pie dough. I didn’t succeed even with Mom by my side. There was something about that particular dough which wouldn’t come together for me, or even for her if I were around. The dough and I were not friends.

Then came the Silver Palate Cookbook and the one pastry dough recipe that loves me. A good start to my Olallieberry memory.

I combed recipes from here and there; I searched the internet and old cookbooks going back to Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School. Then I found a recipe in a McCall’s cookbook I’d been given in 1975 by my cousin, Eva. “Fresh Berry Pie”.

Can you taste things with your imagination? Read an ingredient list and with each addition have the mouth in your mind follow along, adding flavors until a taste takes shape?

I can.

The recipe read, “Dash ground cloves”.

I knew. I could taste it. Dimension, another layer of flavor, depth without sweetness. Unexpected. In a berry pie, or in the cookbook falling apart high up on the shelf in my kitchen cabinet.

I used Silver Palate dough for my crust, four pints of beautiful Olallieberries snagged during their way-too-compact-early-June season, and from deep in my cluttered baking drawer, Vivian’s  pastry cutter to pink the lattice ribbons for the top.

Did its baking fill the house with a scrumptious fragrance? Did it look to tempt the devil himself? Was it torture waiting for it to cool? Did I remember to slide a little a la mode next to it on the plate? Did I savor every bite?

You don’t really need me to answer, do you?

Right out of a 1950’s diner. Lava-like juices had bubbled through the lattice and cooled around the rim to a shiny, luscious deep purple. Flaky barely sweet pie crust, each bite filled with Olallieberry goodness.

As tasty as it was, delicious as the day was long, it was this memory that filled and warmed me, reminded me of who I am, the people and stories that came before me. The joy wasn’t as much in consuming pie as it had been in pursuit and capture of summers five decades ago. Summers filled with sunshine, and love, and berries “harvested by God’s hand”, then baked by my grandmother into an Olallieberry memory.

Vivian Doris Harris Reilly

 

 

 

Children Are Always Good

My mother rarely cried. Unlike her daughter, a veritable fountain on the verge for any occasion, Mom wasn’t given to showing sadness. Anger yes, sadness no.

It might be an Italian thing.

I was 12 years old making yet another trip from my bedroom to the kitchen for a snack after school when I heard my mom in tears at the front door speaking to a neighbor lady who was her good friend. In hushed voices there was only their mumble but I could make out my mother’s distress. Laverne said, “I’m so sorry, Ann. I’m so sorry.”

At 12 what does a kid do? I was afraid. I was curious. I was upset. I was in distress for Mom. I retreated to my room until the front door closed and the voices fell silent. I emerged to find Mom wiping her tears. I stuttered. I asked what happened.

She hesitated and didn’t want to tell. She was unable to quickly create a cover story for the incident and I think that’s the only reason she told the truth.

My grandmother was dying. She was diagnosed with an advanced and untreatable form of leukemia. In disclosing to me, my mother sagged and melted into tears again.

That was over 50 years ago yet I can see every detail in the rear view mirror. Of that day and those after until Fanny died in early December of 1964.

At school the next day I couldn’t concentrate and when lunchtime came, I told my teacher, a sweet, 10891629_10205631889135505_2597179225136233629_nancient, tiny nun. I described all that had happened the day before. I had some fearsome faith back in the day. I probably thought she could pull up some Catholic mojo and make my grandmother better. I could barely get the words out to explain what I knew, what would be the undoing of my little family. Fanny was the light at the center of everything.

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She told me if I prayed hard enough and if I was good enough, God would save my grandmother. I pulled myself together to execute.

I was not only good. I was excellent. I spent hours praying. Days. Nights. I prayed to God. To Jesus. To Mary, His mother.

At school I made As on my lessons. At home I cared for my brothers and my dad so Mom could be with Grandma. I cooked (poorly) and cleaned the house (like a 12-year-old). My mama wept for her mama and I toiled and prayed some more.

Then, my grandmother died.

15591647_10211601282126599_749632490219273768_oThat first Christmas came three weeks after her death. I prayed even harder to the baby Jesus tucked in his tiny manger under the watchful eyes of His parents, nestled in the crisp white sheet at the bottom of our Christmas tree. With twinkling lights and shimmering tinsel, ornaments reflecting its surrounds, our tree stood tall and alone in the corner of our living room. Each evening in the quiet before bed I knelt before the tree. I prayed to atone for Fanny’s death. I hadn’t been good enough in God’s eyes to save her.

I didn’t realize until well into adulthood that I carried that memory deep within, that I operated believing I wasn’t good enough. The ultimate judgment had been rendered and a life was lost. I saw it all in the rear view mirror and was shocked by the depth of the belief, the decision made as young girl based on a teacher’s words.

I never told a soul. I was ashamed and guilty. To whom could I unburden myself and confess this murder? God already knew.21741184_10214368590067568_7115962655116691979_o

You know what I know now? Whether there is or isn’t a god doesn’t matter – children are always good enough. They’re born good. And if you tell them they’re good and lovable, even if sometimes they’re naughty, they will grow into good and loving adults.

Children are good. It’s immutable. Tell the children around you how lovable and good they are. Tell them every day.

I was good. I am good. And Fanny knew for sure.

Fanny & her adoring daughter, my mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arrivederci, Roma

shoppingHard leather soles make an unmistakable sound scuffling across an old wood floor.  There’s a sharp clunk if the back slides off the heel and a little shuffling sound, because slippers are often extra roomy. My grandfather’s were.images

In the morning he’d wrap himself in a red wool plaid Pendleton bathrobe, his long johns peeking from below the hem and ending to expose his ankles. Then the slippers. Always brown. He would drowsily make his way to the kitchen where my grandmother, cloaked in her housecoat, prepped the aluminum stove top percolator with morning coffee. Black coffee.

Medalgia D'oroMedaligia D’Oro.

Tar.

We didn’t get in Grandpa’s way in the morning. He plodded to the breakfast nook to read the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, drink his café, and smoke a morning, unfiltered Camel. Grandma would bring his breakfast. If we crossed his path we’d hear, “Scappa! camelScappa via!” and we scurried away.

So familiar were those words, frequently the first of Grandpa’s day when my brothers and I spent the night, that over 60 years later the sound of slippers dragging across a floor, scraping and clomping to the kitchen, will elicit from my brother or me, “Scappa! Scappa!”

There was however, on occasion, a different kind of morning. One that began similarly with the robe and the long johns, the slippers and the sleepy trip to the kitchen. Then Grandpa bypassed the coffee and headed for the refrigerator. He removed the textured gray, molded cardboard egg carton from a shelf, grabbed a glass from the nearby cabinet, and proceeded to mix a concoction that was largely raw eggs swished around and slammed down in a single gulp.

Not until much later did a glance in the rear view mirror reveal what we didn’t know then – these mornings followed a late night of stubby, vile smelling Toscano cigars, shots of whiskey and espresso, and too many hands of Pinochle with the paisanos at the Italian toscano-extravecchioAmerican Social Club.

There might also have been flirting with the young women who served them. There were rumors…

Grandma Fanny wasn’t happy. When Fanny wasn’t happy there was no talking. No laughing. No smiling.

There was a stern, fixed expression. The silent treatment raised to an art form.

Grandpa had other plans.

After the raw egg fortification he’d walk up behind her as she stood at the white enamel, three-raw-eggs-in-glassgas stove that still had a cubby for burning wood, and twirl her to him. He’d grab her in dance stance, and lead her around the kitchen floor while singing, Arrivederci, Roma. She resisted every step.

“Stop it, Pe-tah” with her Italian accent, and words in a language we didn’t understand. He did not stop.

“Basta!” she’d call out.

For him it was not enough. Around and around the kitchen floor he waltzed her, his robe flaps flying, scappa shoes scraping against the linoleum floor to the sound of his singing and the smell of perking coffee until she could resist no longer.

To the backdrop of his song came her laughter. The prize. The forgiveness. The real break of day.

Sunrise.

Her steely silence ruptured, she’d smile and laugh with a knowing resignation that married life doesn’t always present exactly the way one might like. She lacked the will to carry on angrily.

16195939_10211991329517540_5100011490949474683_nThough Peter lived into his mid-80s, Fanny did not. By 70 she was gone. Four years older than I am now. Did she know what was to come and  committed to using her time wisely, with love? I don’t know.

Around and around they go in her fragrant kitchen, to the sound of his slippers and her sweet laughter, his plea for forgiveness in the notes of Arrivederci, Roma, Fanny and “Pe-tah” dance forever in my memory. In my rear view mirror.