Sugared Peaches

by Andrea Jarrell

After my mother’s second divorce in 1968, we drove from Los Angeles to Fresno on Friday nights. She was 26. I was seven. Behind the wheel of her Buick Skylark, still wearing one of her slim career girl dresses and high heels, she’d collect me from Bonanza Day Camp, and we’d join the weekend traffic heading north out of the city.  By the time we cut to the I-99 to snake our way over the Grapevine and into the San Joaquin Valley, the red taillights of our fellow travelers were fewer and farther between. We picked up speed and the Sun Maid Raisin and Every Body Needs Milk billboards whizzed by. As we flew past the stockyards, the scent of cow manure burned our noses. The women in my family are lead foots—each of us hurrying to get to the rest of our lives. Close to 10:00 p.m., my mother would ease the Skylark into the open garage. Silhouetted by kitchen light, my grandmother watched for us. She was no gray-haired apple doll, but statuesque and slim-hipped with a dark, auburn flip, a country club golf champion with trophies lining her den. With the rumble of the lowering garage door, my mother knew nothing could touch her—not her deadbeat husbands who’d saddled her with their bills, not her legal secretary job and the extra typing she took on to pay for our one-bedroom apartment, not our lascivious neighbor, Mr. Clark, or the lecherous lawyers who wanted her to work late. My mother knew a yellow rose would be in a bud vase by her bedside, cut special from my grandmother’s garden. My mother knew she would sleep deeply for the first time all week. I think of that safe haven now, when my daughter calls from 3,000 miles away so upset I can barely make out the words through her throat-catching sobs. She and her boyfriend had a future all mapped out. They seemed like a pair of matched socks fresh from the dryer. But now he’s gone and she’s left spinning. As I prepare the guest room where she will live until she finds her feet, I cut yellow daffodils from my front garden. That much I know to do. And I can’t help but think of my grandmother’s peaches. Visible through sliding glass doors that led from her den was a bright green lawn with a single row of fruit trees. Dainty, dark-fleshed plums. Fuchsia and gold-swirled nectarines of fairytale proportion. We ate them with knives and forks. First we peeled and sliced the peaches, revealing pink centers like the tender inside of parted lips and legs. Then we sugared them generously and scooped them into Ziploc bags for freezing. No matter the time of year, in anticipation of our arrival, my grandmother would set one of those golden bags on her long kitchen counter to thaw. After we’d deposited our suitcases and she’d gathered us into her arms, we would sit at the breakfast table, small dishes of softened, sugar-sweet peaches before us. My daughter’s been home for a few weeks when we decide to make them. I call my mother first to ask how much sugar. Two teaspoons per peach, we decide. But eyeing the dusty pink and yellow fruit from the Safeway on the Pike, I think it might take more. “How is she doing?” my mother asks each time we talk. Standing at the island in our small square kitchen, I glance at the young woman next to me, sipping her coffee. In her sweats, bedhead hair from sleeping late, and a few mascara smears under her long lashes, she is beautiful. I remind myself that beautiful women don’t have it any easier. My mother’s young life taught me that. We begin slicing the peaches into the bowl between us, giving the fruit and sugar time to mingle and meld. That very night, eager to taste the results, we open the first bag. Closing my eyes to savor the moment the fruit hits my tongue, I startle when my girl says, “Peaches are my favorite.” Rather than my own childhood, hers comes into view. Did she discover her love of peaches while living so far away? What else don’t I know about her? I can already see a flickering and brightening in her green eyes—that part of her that itches to be in the world again. Back when I was making that Fresno trip with my mother, I didn’t understand why she dallied in my grandmother’s kitchen on Sundays, smoking her Benson & Hedges Golds, knowing we would hit the worst of the traffic home. Why she poured just one more cup of coffee from the bubbling percolator, tucking her slender legs beneath her as she settled on her mother’s couch. Why when we finally loaded up the car, my grandmother would stand in the driveway, tears in her eyes, waving. I’d turn around in my seat, waving back, not wanting to look away until she was gone. But my mother, sitting behind the wheel of the Skylark, knowing it was time to make her way again, never even glanced in the rearview. — Artwork by: Marion Post Wolcott