“Cherries were my favourite fruit, especially the dried ones. Outside, in front of the window, there was a table covered with cherries to bake in the sun. They were not to be touched, but I had a way of sneaking them, one by one, whenever mother was busy sewing and not looking to catch the thief.” Monika Kröker Janzen (from her memoir)
Looking back at my own childhood, if I wanted to picture a scene in my mind which could capture the sum of many memories all at once, it would be that of the two sour cherry trees at the front of our yard.
In the summer, when the trees were practically dripping with ripe red fruit, it was the job of my sister and I to pick the cherries, pack them in quarts and sell them at the roadside for 50 cents a quart. Hardly a get-rich-quick scheme.
There was nothing about this experience that brought me even the remotest sense of joy. The 50 cents in exchange for the job of cherry-picker brought very little satisfaction and I always dreaded picking cherries with my sister in the summer. To me, it was a chore to get done before moving onto bigger and better projects such as a long solitary bike ride to lake Ontario.
Surprisingly to me, my sister didn’t seem to mind picking cherries. I think she even liked to eat them. My mother absolutely LOVED cherries. As for me, well, I HATED cherries. Even when we would spend hours on ladders or perched in the branches picking away, snacking on a sour cherry was not an option for me. I would work at a painstakingly slow pace, plucking the berries, stem still attached, placing them mindlessly into my basket whilst dreaming of another place that I wished to be.
Anywhere but there.
There are at least 2 sides to every story. While I hated cherries and cherry picking and cherry trees in general, my mother loved them wholeheartedly. For her, cherries were a distinct reminder of some of the happiest days of her life.
On a typical late summer afternoon in my childhood, my mother could be found in the front garden, hoe in hand, turning the soil around the rosebushes to keep the weeds at bay. She really had a gift with those roses. Most of the rosebushes in our garden in Thorold were cultivated from cuttings she ‘borrowed’ from other plants in neighbouring yards. She was always weeding, moving plants and watering with the sprinkler. Often I would see her working away, then pause with both hands on her hips and drift off somewhere else, deep in her thoughts. I never knew where she would go in those far-away moments.
It seems to me now as though my mother lived in two worlds at the same time. Germany and Canada. Before the war and after the war. The time with her Mutti and her time as an orphan.
I would snap her back into the present moment with a question. “Mommy, what are you eating?”
She would reply, “Oh, just a cherry pit”.
Gardening with a cherry pit lodged in her cheek. It was the only tangible evidence of a handful of cherries that she had eaten a few hours previous. A physical reminder of something that she just couldn’t let go of.
When my mother was still alive she was continually telling us girls stories of her own childhood. Her narratives ran the gamut of emotion from thrilling adventure to horror to fond reminiscence and heart-breaking tragedy. There must have been a reason why she was always telling us these stories. Perhaps she felt compelled to tell them, not only for her own benefit, but also for the benefit of her two young girls … so that one day, upon reflection, we would have a way to know who she was and where she came from.
This is the beauty of my own personal stories as well. They help me to never forget my roots. They keep me honest and humble. They give me confidence and provide a sense of connection to people and places that I hold dear to my heart. For me, the stories of my mother and the stories of my own life continue to shape the person that I am today. Like the cherry pit in my mother’s cheek are the narratives running in the back of my mind. These stories that I hold onto remind me of who I am, where I came from and where I am going.
I have come to believe that we remember stories for a reason. That reason which makes you remember the story, is precisely why the story itself needs to be told!
Like my mother before me, I too now have my own collection of stories. Some I choose to tell others and some I tell only to myself because they are too difficult to share. Some of these stories remind me of how strong and powerful I am. Some also remind me of what my principles are or even that I am a good and loving person.
What about the stories that I don’t like to tell? The ones in which I am not the hero? Quite honestly, if I could have a book-burning, those stories would be thrown into the fire without a second thought!
I now recognize that these stories I’ve worked hard to keep hidden, especially the tragic ones, should never be erased or burned. There is a reason why I can’t let some stories be forgotten. And that is precisely why I need to keep telling them, each time exploring the emotion once again, trying to work it out.
If I believe that I am the sum total of my past, my present and my future, then erasing stories from my life or simply not telling them actually is denying the existence of parts of who I am. A willful self-amputation.
I wonder if my mother felt the same way about her own stories. I can only guess. Perhaps she sensed that if she stopped telling them, she would only exist as a small part of herself and not her whole person.
And so this is the reason for this project I’ve called Cherries in the Sun. It’s about story-telling … memories and reflections which are being recalled for a reason (whether uplifting or tragic, exciting or horrifying) in the hopes that in the telling, they will provide increased clarity and connection to my whole person. Some are my own stories and some are my mother’s.
I’m confident that my mother would’ve wanted her story to be told. I also believe that she felt that telling her story from the very beginning was the only way to help others begin to understand who she was. I see now that she hoped if one could just hear her whole story, from beginning to end, that judgement and misunderstanding could be suspended and that forgiveness and empathy would take it’s place.
Twenty years ago, when I was 18 and she was in her last days, my mother scribbled a hasty memoir. As I read her writing today, I am struck with the thought that the stories she chose to jot down are ones that have a soothing quality to them. Stories of cherries drying in the sun on a summer afternoon. Perhaps, as her stories are for me, they were a way for her to connect with her own mother, the only family that she ever knew. Her mother (my biological grandmother) had also died of breast cancer, orphaning her only child (my mother) at the age of 11.
Sadly my mother never had a chance to quite fully tell her story the way that the school teacher in her would’ve wanted it to be told. She left behind little clues though, and, like crumbs along a pathway, I have begun picking up the pieces. I hope to stand in her place as intercessor, telling her story on her behalf.
I want to carry the past forward with me and get lost in it. I want to savour the flavours, relive the hardships and have my heart break for her, perhaps even for the first time. I want to feel the emotion, as deep and raw as it should be and, where joy is found, to have my heart warmed.
Like my mother in her prized rose garden, I’m carrying the cherry pit in my own cheek for a little while.