I had a peach for breakfast this morning, one of the peaches I bought at the Farmers Market on Tuesday. I never smell or eat peaches without thinking of both of my grandmothers.
I was lucky enough to spend the last two summers of my grandmothers’ lives visiting them (these were the summers of 1976 and 1977). In the summer of 1976, I spent the summer with my mother’s mother, Nana, in her big old Victorian house in upstate New York. Nana’s house had three floors plus an attic (full of wonderful things like Civil War dresses and swords and mementoes of Nana’s brother’s Grand Tour of Europe) and a basement. The ceilings were very high, and the windows on the ground floor were 7 feet tall. Next door, in a mysterious mansion, lived Mrs. Newton, a widow whose only son had been killed during WWII, and she had never been seen since his funeral. Her grounds were immaculately kept up by a gardener and her groceries delivered, but no-one ever saw her.
This Bicentennial summer, my grandfather (nicknamed Hoho by my older sister because he was always laughing) was in the hospital, so I was keeping Nana company. We did visit Hoho every day, but we also made crabapple jelly from the crabapples we picked from the tree in Nana’s yard. I still remember the jewel-like color of the jelly and sealing the jars with wax. One day, Nana took me to a farm where she carefully chose a bushel of peaches. I remember the delicious fragrance of the fruit and the warm, fuzzy feel of their velvet skins. When we got home, Nana showed me how to ripen them to perfection by keeping them in brown paper bags in her amazing cellar. The field stone cellar was whitewashed every year and had separate compartments for root vegetables and apples, and shelves and shelves of preserves. My grandmother had been born on a farm at the end of the 19th century and did not waste anything, ever.
I am so glad I had that summer with Nana. She died the following August, and that is where my childhood ended.
1977 was Jubilee year in England, 25 years since the Queen had ascended to the throne. I spent that summer in England with my father’s parents, Grammie and Daddy’s Daddy (we found it amazing that our Daddy had one of his own). Grammie went shopping every day except Sunday, partly because of the teeniness of English refrigerators in those days (bar fridge size to Americans), partly to catch up on the village gossip, and partly, I think, because it was tradition. Daddy’s Daddy, of course, never went shopping since he was a Victorian gentleman to the core, but if we were late returning from the shops, he would be hovering anxiously in the front garden.
One day when we were at the Lincoln sisters’ greengrocers (the four unmarried Lincoln sisters ran the greengrocers after their father’s death and until their own), I saw peaches for sale. I asked Grammie if we could buy some, and she said she didn’t like them. I found this astonishing, and on further questioning it emerged that my grandmother, in her more than 80 years of life, had only ever eaten canned peaches.
So I bought some peaches and that evening, sliced them up and dusted them very lightly with sugar and served them for dessert. It was apparently a culinary revelation to my grandparents, because they loved them. In my memory of that long-ago summer, we had peaches every night after that, though it seems a little unlikely. But what I am sure of is that we had them in little clear glass faceted dishes. Each facet had a little blue star painted on it, and the dishes had a gilt edging. I wish I knew what had happened to those star dishes.