“Women who are sick should not stew fruit or it will go mouldy!”. It took me a while to realize that by ‘sick’ grandmother actually means menstruating. “It’s not superstition, it’s wisdom my dear” she told me sagely. It was June and I had been stewing and bottling cherries whilst they were in season, finding I could buy large carrier bags full of the fruit for roughly the same price as a punnet back home. Bottled fruit, especially cherries, is something I will always associate with Poland and my grandparents. As children we were served it for pudding with a kind of soured milk called ‘dickmilch’, a german name that sounds rather unfortunate in English and caused a few raised eyebrows when my young cousin came back from holiday one year raving about the ‘dick milk’ he’d enjoyed.
For those who are not ‘sick’ and fancy giving fruit bottling a go, I would recommend giving it a try as it’s pretty easy and doesn’t involve a jam thermometer, pectin or weighing scales which appeals to my minimum effort approach to cooking. A little bit of water and sugar is brought slowing to the boil, then the fruit is added whole (or in my case, with the stones expertly removed using a special machine), then you just wait until the fruit is cooked through, put it into jars then put upside down. (Worth checking that you’ve matched the right lids to the right jars before you do this or you end up pouring cherry juice all over the work top like I did.)
The mindless task of de-stoning the cherries provided the perfect opportunity for grandmother to tell me some stories when she was in the mood, as we sat together companionably on the veranda. She is starting to get better at telling stories that have a tangible beginning and end these days, but maybe it’s just I’m getting better at understanding her. One day she sweetly told me a story of her trip to the Ukraine about 10 years ago, where she went for a form of summer camp. She recalls seeing a woman sitting alone, knitting whilst she watched her child play. Wanting to connect but without the language skills to communicate with this woman, grandmother sat on a rock nearby and sang her a song (this seems to be a theme in our family).
There was then a brief interlude in grandmother’s story where she scuttled off to find a prop, which she came back with hidden behind her back. She continued to describe the stalls at the side of the road in Ukraine, selling homemade straw hats for tourists. With a flourish she produced a straw cowboy hat from behind her back, her apparent purchase from this stall! Using the cowboy hat as a prop, she indicated how she had been standing at the bus stop with her new purchase, waiting to go home, when she chanced to meet the woman she’d sung to again. Without saying anything, the woman smiled, placed something in grandmother new hat, then walked on. At this point grandmother produces a little knitted figure from her hat to show me what the woman had given her. From how grandmother told the story, building up to this moment, you could tell how profoundly touched she was by the simple gesture. That a women she didn’t even know the name of, who had spent the week knitting a small figure she could easily have given to her child, instead chose to gift it to my grandmother, the woman who had taken time to sing her a song as she sat knitting, was obviously something very special to her. It was not the sort of anecdote that holds a large audience captive, but the meaning was still there. The profound impact that simple, seemingly inconsequential acts of friendship and kindness can have on two people’s lives.
Grandmother continued to tell me how the little figure sits below a portrait of me in her room, drawn by my other grandmother, which drew the story to an end nicely as we went into her room to admire my 4 year old likeness on her wall.