September 29, 2014
In the misty pre-dawn, I run back and forth from the truck to the tarp, cradling boxes of Concord grapes in my arms. My father has died, and I am doing his work. On this one day a year, I am the grape lady. There are blue balloons flying out at the street and a couple of tons of grapes on my garage floor.
Always in the food business, my dad Lauren A. Yoder extended his strawberry season by bringing a truckload of grapes from the Wenger Grape Farm in Augusta County when they were ripe. Customers ordered ahead, then picked up a half bushel, a bushel, or more on the designated day. They left with the fragrant boxes, driving off to make jam, to make wine, or just to eat the luscious fruit as a dessert. They drove away with a bunch of the grapes tucked in their laps or in the passenger seat beside them, to enjoy on the way home. It was impossible to resist the delicious smell. The bees and yellow jackets thought so too.
After Daddy was gone, the phone at the old white farmhouse had begun ringing with pleas for Concord grapes. At the same time, I learned that Dave Wenger had a bumper crop of grapes and would be glad to send a truckload down to Denbigh once again. I found a clipboard holding an old customer list written in Daddy’s endearing left-hand scrawl, and I decided to take the plunge.
That was ten years ago. Every year since, I have hosted the pickup of the grapes one September day from dawn till night. A hundred people participate. It has become an exhausting harvest ritual for me and a poignant homecoming event for many.
They come bearing gifts: fresh garden tomatoes, jars of fig jam, a bag of candy, a foil-wrapped roll of kim-pap—that toothsome Korean snack of rice and seaweed.
They come bringing bottles of the wine they made in 2013. A profound blessing of the fruit of the vine is printed on the labels in Hebrew.
There are gifts of stories as well. As we pack the grapes into the backs of cars and trucks, I hear the happy and sad of the past year—cancer, suicide, dialysis, loss. I hear how it felt to be part of the Battle of the Bulge at the age of 17. I hear about zebra finches and how to tell a male from a female. I learn the personalities of house-broken rabbits named Sarah and Benjamin. I hear about the grandson in tears because his girlfriend ate up the last jar of grape jam.
The grape-seekers are diverse… a retired Italian NASA engineer…a Romanian…many Koreans. The British woman who learned to make grape pies from her Maryland mother-in-law. The Brazilian mom whose little ones ate peanut butter sandwiches on my back steps and then admired the writing on a beautiful garden spider web. Too many to name are the country people whose grand-daddy grew grapes.
I have my own rendezvous the grapes. First and foremost, I pop them into my mouth, suck, and swallow—skins, seeds and all.
But in the days to come, grape jam is required, many jars of it, for the whole family.
Grape pie is expected at holidays. Jars of rich purple juice make a refreshing treat mixed with sparkling water.
This is a lot of work. Over the years, my mother fairly begged for a bowl of grapes to be placed on her lap. With her slim brown fingers, she pulled each one off its stem, then popped the green inside from the purple skin. I would cook the pulp, strain out the seeds, then continue on with my recipes. She was a great help. I miss her! These days a little namesake Nina, born a hundred years after her, is my helper.
When Grape Day is over, and before I get started on my own mounds of grapes, I still have a pilgrimage to make. I put twenty pounds of grapes in the back of my car and drive down to the East End of Newport News. I go up a wheelchair ramp to the door of a little bungalow where late flowers bloom in pots. At my knock, a sweet voice calls from her hospital bed, where she has been the whole long decade. “Oh, I love my grapes!” she exults. “Thank you for bringing them to me.”
“You know why I do, don’t you?” I say.
“Yes, I do.” She smiles, remembering my father with me. Then her face grows pensive. “That last year he brought them, I thought he didn’t look well.”
I stand by her bed, misty-eyed, heart full and overflowing. There is a long, pulsing silence. I feel the dearness and the kindness of my father, as if he were standing near us in slouchy hat and shoes, plaid shirt tucked and belted into khakis.
The grapes are over for another year. But the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” remains vibrant in my heart.
Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at email@example.com.