Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Back to the Prairie: The Big Cherry Tree

   Farm life has always been a joy to me; the chores and duties so fulfilling. Each season with it's work; each month with different tasks to undertake. One particular seasonal job just never made it to my favorites list, and to this day, does not exist on my little farm.

    Trees on the prairie are few and far between; I loved them. Laying under their canopy to gaze at the big blue sky through their tops, and investigating the unique details of their leaves...I love spending time in the trees. Among the lovelies there on the farm was the cherry tree.
    Planted just behind Grandpa's workshop, just to the side of the garden, the cherry tree towered majestically over the roof top and spanned its mighty branches over the old water pump. Tiny pink blossoms seemed to float among the leaves overhead evoking fantasy and imagination. In time the tiny blossoms would float to the ground leaving a blanket of pink to tickle my toes as I skipped over them.
   The cherry tree wasn't just a thing of great wonder and beauty, it was a symbol of work and provision. Picking, packing, and canning would flow from the amazing cherry tree...days of it. Cherry season seemed to last forever and it put a serious dent in my 'field time'. 
    Sending me here and there to every nook and cranny around the farm sends suspicion through me like an electrical charge. With great hesitation I'd ask - where do you want them? Her answer confirmed my suspicion- under the cherry tree. I had seen the pink blossoms overhead while we tilled the soil. I also saw them disappear- which could only mean one thing: cherry picking season.
     Aunts and uncles gathered; Grandma had her scarf over her hair (so it didn't tangle in the branches). The long ladder was brought and placed against the mighty trunk of the tree. At this moment my vision blurs as my eyes travel way up to the high branches. Did I mention way up there. My fear of the basement pales in comparison to my fear of heights. It's one thing to dream about being in the tree; it's another to actually do it! Having a knack for asking me to do the strangest chores dear God, make me invisible- I slowly start looking for my escape; no sudden movements to catch their eye or I will me sent up the tree for sure!
     It is decided the adults will take turns while the rest of us haul the large buckets up to the house, but I am already busy 'nosey-ing around' the little garden tool shed. It's so small and cute; tucked just under the apricot tree. My wild imagination kicks in as I slip inside- fascinated my tools and hoses; old pots and watering stuffs---treasure! Whoops, busted. Get out of there before a snake finds you. Snake?!? Instant cure. Needless to say- snakes petrify me!
     The little wagon and wheel barrow are loaded with buckets; I pull the wagon while Grandma pushes the barrow..up the 'hill' gravel driveway to the farmhouse. Just inside the door they sit and back down the drive we go. Tempting thoughts fill my head what if I just jumped in and rode the wagon down the hill? like sledding! My wicked grin give me away- Grandma reminds me we have work to do. Foiled again!
     While actual cherry picking is terrifying the trips up the hill are kind of fun even though I am constantly reminded not to go too fast because it spills the buckets. However, the worst is yet to come; at least in the picking we are outside. Once a nice store of buckets is inside, I am sentenced to insufferable torture with no possible end in sight. On a little metal stool I sit with the tiniest parring knife ever made and the biggest bucket you have ever seen. Do you know how many cherries are in big bucket? Or how long it takes to split, pit and pick over them? Oh, no! I am convinced death would be better. Cinderella never had it this bad--or Snow White; the books never mention them pitting millions of cherries by hand--while the sun is shining and fields are being plowed; while butterflies are waking up and wiggly worms are squiggling around.
     Sensing my indignation, my great-grandmother plants herself nearby. She has been washing jars and rings all day- that couldn't have been any better. Together we sit, enslaved by the cherries with sticky red juice staining our fingers and dripping off our elbows. One by one the aunts trickle in leaving more and more buckets of bright red cherries. Eventually they themselves at a task. Sweet syrupy fragrance wafts through the big farm kitchen as Grandma is starting to cook them; the bubbling pot like a cauldron in this dungeon of drudgery. I try real hard to imagine these cherries in the pot bursting in the heat  and soaking up the sugar like a sponge..somehow, this really doesn't help.
     Worm! Cutting into the cherry in my hand reveals a nasty white little bugger- ewe! Just flick it out and keep going. You have got to be kidding. Trying not to gag, I 'flick it out' and attempt to move on, but knowing it is in the pit bucket convinces me it is staring at me- waiting to seek revenge. Great grandma give me a nudge and a smile to encourage me on. Thinking real hard, I try letting my imagination set me free- to the sunshine and wind..but I can' know, worm!
     Canning is starting now; the old olive colored pressure canner is whistling from the stove top. I have seen that thing pop a jar--good grief, canning is dangerous! Jars set to cool on the big island counter; pings and pops let us know the job is done right. These will be waiting for their call to serve in pies and cobblers in the year to come.
    For the 'umteenth' time I slip past my grandmother it for a sip of water, a trip to the bathroom--taking my time to get back to the yucky cherry pitting. Can't you sit still and finish a job? My grandmother is losing her patience with me..yes I can, if it isn't cherry pitting. Sure glad that didn't come out of my mouth- just stuck there in my head.
     Once more at the buckets I sigh, doomed to the duty. We will never get all these cherries done. Great grandma senses my plight. Understanding the wild heart of a little prairie girl she urges me run along for a while and stretch my legs. Hesitantly I peak over my shoulder for Grandma's approval, fearing she will keep me here. With a shake of her head and a half-grin, go on.
     Without a second thought I burst from my seat and fly out the back door--giving no mind to the fact I just slammed the screen again (I can just imagine the look on Grandma's face-oops). My little bare feet fly across the gravel to the prairie grasses; wind whips my hair and the sun kisses my face. I'm free! Free to find my grandfather in the field and get 'proper dirty' from head to toe. Free to wander the barn with the kittens or scavenge the tree line..ah, sweet freedom!

   Cherry season had its wonder; even amidst pitting and dripping among the buckets and buckets of fruit. The task may have been grueling, but time together was a treasure. The aunts gathered all around, grandmothers crinkled hands working next to crazy uncle up a tree! The sugary scent of cherry bubbling on the stove; the hiss of the canner followed by the pop of metal lids. The ultimate consolation to all the work came in the form of a flaky crust, lattice topped, sweeter than ought be allowed cherry pie. Can you just taste it? It has been years since I have had the privilege of a proper prairie cherry pie!

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