I don’t know exactly how it happens, but on a particular night, thousand pale yellow buds burst open on the linden trees lining our quiet street in Serbia, and the smell of summer floats on the light breeze, weaving around lacy curtains and squeezing through the window slats until it reaches me, gently tickling my nose until I smile in my sleep. The next morning I jump out of bed, open the windows all the way, and breathe in the sweet scent that promises the end of school and the beginning of another carefree and luxurious summer.
Mother comes home from the market, her pretty face flushed from walking too fast and carrying heavy canvas bags in each hand. She carefully places the produce warm from the sun on the kitchen table, turning the tablecloth back not to get it soiled from the dirt still clinging to the roots and leaves. The color of the farmers market in spring is lusciously green, ranging from almost fluorescent hue of crisp fresh peas, to green-ombre-tinged bibb lettuces, to fresh grassy colored scallions, to darker bunches of spinach, and even darker parsley loosely bound with a pink rubber band.
But on this morning, the expected sea of green parts as Mother gingerly pulls out her last purchase wrapped in butchers paper, smiling mysteriously, dragging the moment to eternity, while we await, our breath suspended in anticipation, and lays a pound of first strawberries on the table. Everything else disappears as our three hands reach for warm red fruit. Mother protests wanting to wash them, but it’s too late. There is nothing that can prevent us from biting into the berries, the juice dripping down our chins and into the cupped hand. We don’t care that they are not as fragrant and sweet as they will be a few weeks later. The first strawberry of the season marks the end of spring and ushers in the summer, as triumphantly as the scent of lindens.
There is no turning back. The greens slowly retreat, hanging in the background, as the market explodes in vibrant colors: the pink of tiny new potatoes, the assertive orange of thin, sweet carrots, the crisp white of parsnips, the pale yellow of first elongated peppers, and piles of scarlet strawberries stealing the show, never relinquishing their leading positions. We never tire of them. We can smell them from afar, as soon as Mother appears at the street corner, and we run toward her, hoping that they were not intended for preserves or juice. In the afternoon Father comes home from the hospital toting a wooden crate or two that a patient’s husband shyly tried to leave in his office only to be dragged back inside to have an obligatory cup of Turkish coffee and a shot of slivovitz with the departing surgeon.
In no time, kitchen is swimming in red. The big, blue, shallow pots are full of strawberries simmering in syrupy water, the thick droplets escaping every so often to mar the pristine white of the stove’s surface. We are sitting at the table hunched over our bowls barely speaking, enjoying each fragrant bite, while Mother stirs the blubbering pot. The glass jars are in the oven, with the lids bouncing on the bubbles of boiling water in another pot. Just when the sun sinks for the night behind the twin hills to the west, Mother pours cooled preserves into the warm jars, each fruit still intact, beautiful in its dark ruby splendor. The ruby cotillion will wait patiently on the pantry’s shelves for a cold December night when it will bring forth a forgotten breath of summer and a touch of life into the dreary grayness.
There are no linden trees in California to usher in the summer. I look at the calendar for the change in seasons, as I do not have to suffer through a long and frigid winter. The grocery stores have great deals on berries, but just like tomatoes, these mutant fruits are lifeless, void of taste, and disappointing in every aspect. I recognize the imploring looks in my girls’ eyes as they listen to the seductive Lorelei song of strawberries taunting them from the shelves. I can buy the kiwi-sized monsters to placate them, but I want them to taste the essence of the fruit.
I pile them into my tiny Yaris and drive to the Torrance Farmers Market. They normally tend to stay in the car, bickering and fighting for every inch of space between them, listening to Marina and the Diamonds, Mother, Mother, and Muse, impatient and bristling with adolescent energy. But they unfold from the low-slung vehicle and follow me as I meander through the stalls, looking for smallish, dark-red, intensely-scented strawberries. Once I find my precious, I offer them a taste – the aroma stops them in mid-sentence. The grubby hands reach out greedily and I parse the berries two at a time, unwashed, but sweet, smelling of easy summer nights and worry-free days. There won’t be any ruby jars dancing on my pantry shelves next December, but I smile with content as the fruit disappears, berry by berry, leaving behind only stems and juice-stained chins. And in its aftertaste, there are new memories being born.