By now I think I would stop being so surprised at the power our senses have to bring us back to a particular place or moment in time. It happens often enough, even daily, but very often I am too busy or too focused on something else to pay attention and feel where my senses are taking me. Right now the beautiful early fall days remind me of walking up the dirt road I grew up on, leaves collected in the ditches and their damp yet crisp smell filling the air. But this memory wasn’t automatic - I had to stop and think back when I realized that I had this wild desire to swing my arms around in a "Sound of Music" moment.
Some memories are easy to recollect. Just today, walking from my car to my office door I passed Sidehill Farms where they were clearly making a batch of delicious jam. The sweet smell of boiling fruit, strawberry, I believe, propelled me instantly to those days when my grandmother would be making jam in her kitchen, box fans vibrating the air and the scent of fruit and sugar so strong you could practically taste it. Go a bit further into the memory and I can feel the sticky humidity in the kitchen, see the jars lined up on the kitchen table waiting to be filled and hear Grandma’s voice warning me to be careful. That memory needed no coaxing. This weekend my daughters and I visited my brother and his family at their new home on the shore of Lake Champlain. They are discovering things about this new place daily - the calm of the bay in the early morning, the number of noisy blue jays hanging around the cedars, the light in the kitchen in the afternoon. Luckily, they have also discovered wild grapes.
The girls and I arrived around 9 p.m. after a long day of school and work and a three-hour car trip. After hugs all around, I went to put a couple of perishables we had brought in the refrigerator. My brother followed me and with a goofy grin on his face, held out a bowl of grapes, leaves and vines still attached. "Try one." he said. "They are just like the ones from Williamsville." I chose one and popped it into my mouth, knowing instinctively from experience 35 years ago that the best way to enjoy this grape was to slip the skin off with gentle pressure and then suck the flesh away from the single (possibly double) seed inside. And suddenly, there I was, back next to the brook at the bottom of the hill of my childhood home, a bit downstream from our Mermaid Pool, picking and eating grapes on a fall day after school. I looked at my brother and we shared a smile. This memory was one we both knew and loved dearly.
The weekend progressed with lots of cousin play, tons of kayaking and more talking than we’d been able to have in a long time. Saturday was a windy day which made the kayaking in the waves exciting and the trees dance crazily. This also meant that it could be a little dangerous under the Shagbark Hickory tree that towers over their back yard, raining nuts down on innocents. My brother is very proud of that tree, regardless of the dangers it posed, especially liking the fact that it was producing something. We took the time to look up exactly what we were supposed to do with hickory nuts - were these truly edible? If so, what then?
We learned that Shagbark Hickory trees do indeed produce edible nuts, nuts that people praise highly. They produce on a three-year cycle and it seemed to us that we were in the bumper crop year, meaning that next year there will be virtually no nuts. The problem with hickory nuts is that their shells are very hard, making getting to the nuts difficult and getting the nut meats out in decent-sized pieces next to impossible. In fact, many people just grind the nuts into flour. But some people did talk about eating the nuts themselves, and as we are always up for a challenge and were not about to let a perfectly good harvest of nuts go to waste, we decided to give shelling hickory nuts a try.
My daughter Marielle loved taking the green husks off, and left us with a large pile of small, pale nuts. They looked pretty impregnable to me and honestly, we weren’t surprised that there weren’t squirrels all over this bounty - this was going to be difficult. Not having the mentioned ‘heavy-duty’ nut cracker or a vise, or really any tools at all, we a squatted on the ground, trying to crack the nuts open between large stones. This often meant that a nut went flying off in an unpredictable direction when it wasn’t hit squarely and we felt fortunate that no one smashed a finger. But when we did manage to crack open a nut we poked and prodded, dug and scraped at the delicious, almost butterscotch tasting, usually pulverized meat. My 8-year-old Margot and her two cousins, Audrey and Liza, turned all this nut-cracking and collecting into a game, pretending to be Native Americans, chattering away as they gathered food for the winter.
We came home with two paper grocery bags half-full of hickory nuts. They are currently still sitting in our living room, but Marielle has spent some time husking them. With the craziness of school and work, our weekend seems far away, but I hope that we will be able to put aside a little time to crack more nuts. Maybe with the proper tools we’ll have better luck getting the nut meats out in larger pieces. But what I hope for most of all most of all is sometime in the future coming across hickory nuts will bring my daughters and nieces back to squatting under that big tree with wind blowing around cracking nuts, the sound of the water in their ears and the sweet taste of times shared with family.