Helen Chappell - September 2009

Eat a Peach


Helen Chappell

   One of the best ways to eat a peach is to stand over the sink and just bite into it, letting the juices drip into the basin, savoring every mouthful.
    Peaches are only in season for a few months around here and, like most locally grown food, taste far better, sweeter and more peachy than the cardboard balls you’ll find in the supermarket in the winter. Like their cousins, the cardboard tomatoes of winter, the taste has been bred out of them in favor of something that is easy to ship without bruising.
    But oh, a fresh peach is a thing of wonder, whether it’s yellow or white. That peach taste, so soft and subtle, just melts on your tongue, and if you eat it over the sink, you can gnaw the sweet fruit from around the pit, then have another one. Enjoy them while they’re here because they’re not around for long!
    A hundred years ago, Delmarva was the fruit capital of the country, with orchards of peaches and fields of strawberries, tomatoes and asparagus everywhere. Blights and bans on DDT wiped that industry out, replacing it with soybeans and corn that feed the local poultry industry. But there are still places here and there that have peach orchards where you can pick your own. Peaches are plentiful in the farmer’s markets and the roadside stands, so you never need go without.
    As I hung over the sink, gnawing away, I had a sudden flash of memory of another time and another place, long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a little kid.
    Through the miracle of memory, which at my age turns increasingly to the distant past, I was sitting in the back of my Uncle Buddy’s 1954 Chevy with my cousins. It was a hot summer day. Uncle Buddy had left us in the car while he ran an errand. In those days you could leave your kids in a car without worrying that someone would kidnap them.
    I would pity any fool who tried to kidnap my cousins. There was Kathy, who was my age, about eight, but about a century ahead of me in worldly knowledge. Her brothers Renny and Bobby weren’t much younger, but they’d already racked up a reputation as troublemakers and, I have no doubt, a juvenile rap sheet to match. These kids were bad news. And no wonder.
    My Uncle Buddy, the youngest boy in the family, who was petted and spoiled by his four older sisters, had come back from World War II with some unmentionable form of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that the family talked about in chopped-up phrases and raised eyebrows when the kids were around. He also came back with his new wife, Aunt Mary, who, as far as I could determine, came from a dubious background, at least according to the family. Again, this was spoken of in front of the children with a series of muttered phrases and raised eyebrows.
    But you got the sense she wasn’t quite up to their small-town rigid standards of gentility. In short, she was common, and we couldn’t have that. She also had a mean streak about a mile wide. Both of them were hitters; they hit each other and they hit the kids. Uncle Buddy’s hair-trigger temper was a thing of legend in the family.
    So, on that hot summer day, there we were, sitting in the back of the car, waiting for Uncle Buddy. There was a sack of peaches back there, too, and it wasn’t long before we were all eating them. Then Kathy, Renny and Bobby started throwing them, first at each other, then all over the car, and last, aiming them out the window at other cars. There was peach goo all over everything – the kids, the backseat and big splats on the neighboring cars. And now the cousins were fighting. They fought a lot.
    I was sort of both scared and awed. It’s true my brother and I weren’t exactly angels. I can recall a time when, together with the neighbor boys, we took stones and broke out every window in the north side of the neighbor’s barn. We knew it was wrong, we knew we were going to be punished for it, but oh, the sound of that breaking glass was so wonderful – and the way it shattered and fell was just so great we did it anyway. And we paid for it by accepting our punishment and being separated for a period of time from the neighbor kids. But that was sort of Sunday school compared to these cousins of mine.
    About the point that Kathy was strangling Renny, Uncle Buddy returned to the car. And then the real fun began. As I’ve said before, the man had a hair-trigger temper, but I’d never seen an eruption like this. Somehow, perhaps because of the unwritten law that you don’t hit other people’s kids, especially if their mom was your formidable sister Helen Mae, I escaped the flailing open-handed slaps and verbal abuse. Whatever else Uncle Buddy had gone through in the Army, he’d learned to swear like a drunken waterman on a Friday night at Buddyworld.
    Now, my father, when loosened, could swear pretty well, but his language was a model of restraint compared to my Uncle Buddy, and I learned a whole lot of brand new words that day.
    Uncle Buddy and Aunt Mary always said they didn’t understand why their kids were so bad.
    One time they tried to flush their parakeet down the toilet, followed by several rolls of toilet paper. They regularly beat up the neighbor kids, I heard, and spent more time in the principal’s office than in the classroom. They broke into a church and painted all the floors with some green paint they found lying around. And that was just the stuff I knew about. Even as a kid I was glad they lived a couple of towns over from us and didn’t go to my school.
    In winter, my uncle used to trap muskrats, and I remember the garage of their house being filled with skins, nailed to flat boards to be cured. One time the kids stole all the uncured skins and buried them under the house. It was a week before Uncle Buddy and Aunt Mary figured out where the awful smell was coming from.
    When we reached adolescence, my cousin Kathy and I drifted apart and I didn’t see much of the cousins anymore. Later, I learned that Kathy was quite sexually active before I was even sure what the mechanics of the deed were, and my mother thought it best that I stay away from her. Those kids were a bad influence.
    By the time they dropped out of high school, both boys were well on their way to a lifetime of crazy and poor impulse control. Kathy got pregnant and had a shotgun wedding. Later she got drunk at a bar, was in a car accident and lost an arm. True to form, she tried to sue the bartender for serving her too much alcohol.
    Every family has its black sheep, and I guess those were ours. The rest of my cousins went on to lead very conventional lives, more or less.
    But sometimes, when I eat a peach over the sink, I remember that hot day and the smell of peaches and my Uncle Buddy’s amazing vocabulary.
    And then I think, wow, I really dodged a bullet there.
    But it has never ruined my love for fresh peaches. Some things are just too good to allow bad memories to destroy them.