By Rosalind Bentley for Southern Foodways Alliance
A couple of years ago, my mother and I were making our way through the Whole Foods produce section when she stopped at the pears. Green, yellow, red, and dusty brown, they stood single file in rows like choirs. Mama picked up a fruit the color of tender young sprouts and turned it, curvy and firm, in her hands.
“Umph. This one isn’t good,” she said.
It seemed fine to me. She loves pears, so I pulled a plastic bag for her to fill. Then she looked at the prices per pound.
“Three ninety-nine,” she said, her voice rising. “Who gon’ pay that for some pears?! That’s why folks can’t keep money, shopping in here.”
She put the fruit back in the bin. My mother was almost eighty years old then and though she’d been living frugally by training and necessity, the price was an affront to her. She grew up on her family’s farm in Jackson County, Florida. On their land, food flowed plentiful and free. From the corn kernels ground for grits, to the pigs and cows they slaughtered for bacon and stew, the family grew and raised just about everything they ate. They drank wine made from tangles of blackberries clustered near the woods. Their juices fermented in the log smokehouse in a tall clay pot most likely hand-thrown by one of our enslaved ancestors. The pot was available anytime someone wanted a swig of wine, enjoyed by itself or maybe after a helping of pear pie.
The pear tree was visible from my grandparents’ front porch, but to get to it you had to cross the fields and skirt the edge of the woods. In spring, the tree exploded with delicate white blossoms, each a promise of the bounty to come. By late summer, when the branches drooped and groaned with fruit, my grandmother would send my mother to the tree to harvest. Sometimes, Mama gathered a bushel for canning, but more often she picked a few pears for one of Grandma Willie’s pies. Juicy and lush, wrapped in delicate crusts, those pies were really more like cobbler.
When I think of her walking toward that tree, I imagine my mother like Janie, the protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston’s master work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Under the branches of a pear tree, Janie watches bees flit around a profusion of white blooms. She senses she’s on the cusp of womanhood. The pollinating bees suggest the ripeness of her own body, though she cannot name the change coursing through her flesh and mind.
In that moment, Janie is sixteen years old, unaware she’s about to be married off to a man old enough to be her father. She embarks on a life of trials that bruise and mark her. In time, she finds a real relationship with a younger man called Tea Cake. It’s an affirming but ill-fated love that leaves her with no regrets. Later, when the world begins to look past a middle-aged woman and toward girls on the cusp of bloom, Janie finds some peace.
My mother’s path reminds me of Janie’s, though no man like Tea Cake ever came along to sweeten a season of her life.
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