Strawberries

By

When my grandmother Gittel moved into the house of her later years the strawberry patch alongside the house was a shambles. Completely dried out, plants and earth. And the previous owner had even strewn all over it many rocks he had dug up when laying underground pipes, turning it into a kind of dump for rocks. Also, weeds had sprouted everywhere, their large leaves looking like gloating smiles. When we grandchildren came to visit the first time, we stood looking at the old patch with sunken hearts, shaking our heads.

Now, my grandmother could buy strawberries at the market, but from her own Polish mother she knew that no strawberries were as sweet as the ones you grew yourself. So she didn't put up with sunken hearts and head-shaking for long. She organized her grandchildren into a strawberry brigade, and we set to work at once to restore the patch to full bloom and vigor. We carted rocks away in wheelbarrows. We raked the ground, even scoured it on hands and knees, not missing a pebble. We uprooted the weeds, making great heaps of drooped smiles. We uprooted the old brittle strawberry plants and filled the ground with fresh seeds. And every day we took turns coming to water the patch and ward off unwelcome bugs.

Slowly the new plants began to show themselves. It was as if they'd been hiding under the ground all the time, waiting until it was safe to come up, and there was a wariness in the way their little leaves waved in the wind. Soon the first strawberries peeped out, greenish white and fragile, like tiny birds so awed by life they couldn't make a sound. Finally, when they swelled with their juices and turned that hearty red, the whole patch glowed with a deep blush of pride.

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My grandmother stood with us, beholding the wonder. She was a short, sturdy woman with the sly face of a practical person and the shy soul of a dreamer. For a moment her hand moved over her eyes, as if she were making sure the patch wasn't a vision that could be wiped away. Then she smiled and applauded, and we all joined in.

She had the honor of picking the first strawberry, and it was then she noticed the surprise. Tied to a leaf of the plant was a little card on which was written ''Strawberry shortcake.'' She looked at the other plants, and they, too, from ''Strawberry cobbler'' to ''Just plain strawberries,'' announced their destined glories. A whole strawberry cookbook, written in red and green, lay open before her, awaiting her inspiration.

''I promise everybody their favorite,'' she said, moved and flattered. But there must have been something smug in our faces, as if we thought we now knew everything there was to know about strawberries, having nurtured and ordained them. With a look admonitory yet kind, my grandmother told us a story:

''When I was a little girl in Poland, our family had a house and some land near town. Because we were Jews, we were not popular with the people who lived around us. When they drove their wagons to market on the road that went by our house, they would shout things, shake their fists. Sometimes they threw rocks.

''We had by the house a strawberry patch like this, maybe a little smaller. My mother and I planted and tended it ourselves. I wish I could tell you how beautiful it was.

''Can you imagine how we felt one night, at home alone, when my father and my brothers were gone on business, we saw some rowdy wagoners on their way back from town driving their wagons straight toward our patch to crush our strawberries?

''I'll tell you what happened. My mother and I, we ran outside. We stood in front of the patch, blocking the way, a woman not much bigger than a child and a child. We didn't know whether to close our eyes and wait for the end, or go down on our knees. Suddenly my mother said, 'Sing!' She took my hand and began to sing, and I sang, too. I don't remember what we sang, only that we sang our frightened hearts out. The wagoners must have thought that two angels had been sent to protect the strawberries, because, God is my witness, they stopped and looked at us with shame in their eyes. Then they turned their wagons around and went away.

''Afterwards, my mother took some strawberries in the house and washed them. She put them in a bowl of water and then put the bowl on the table, next to the Sabbath candles. I had always known we were a people of hope. Now I knew we were a people of strawberries as well.''

My grandmother smiled and nodded, as if thinking to herself that the strawberry patch today was the grandchild of the one a song had saved years ago. Then she said:

''Now go. Go and fetch the baskets for picking. I want to be alone for a few moments.''

We watched her from the house. If there was a blessing for new strawberries, she was saying it.

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