Making a bowl of cherries — one cherry at a time

My neighbor, Charlotte, taught me to make a cherry pie.

There was a sour-cherry tree in her frontyard, and every year as it went from bloom to fruit, she invited me to pick my fill. Every year, I thanked her and picked nothing. Finally, her invitation prompted me to tell the truth.

“I don’t know how to make pie,” I told her.0710MAGGIEart

“Oh, it’s easy,” she said, and then told me how.

Charlotte’s tree provided the quarts and quarts of cherries necessary. No matter how many I picked, there were still more. Their bright red skin enclosed soft, sour yellow fruit that yielded its stone easily with a little squeeze. I’d stand at my kitchen sink, looking out the window with a mind cleared by repetitive hand-work, and methodically prepare cherries for pie.

It was a time for thinking, or better, not thinking. The mechanical act of tweezing a cherry between my fingers and pressing out its pit over a tea towel in the sink provided enough rhythm to allow my mind to go silent. Perhaps this was the real gift of homemade cherry pie; not the eating, or the way it perfumed the house from the warm oven. Not even the antique, round-the-kitchen-table feeling it created when still warm and served in runny slices. But purely the way it made me stop and attend to each individual fresh cherry, one small fruit at a time.

Charlotte’s recipe was simple enough. Pit enough cherries to fill a pie crust, then add a cup or so of sugar and a couple of tablespoons of tapioca to thicken the juice, Charlotte told me. Then bake it. That’s all.

Either Charlotte was a natural pragmatist, or she adopted a philosophy to encourage me: she said it wasn’t cheating to use store-bought pie crust dough. I appreciated that.

The pies were fine. I picked lots of cherries and my son helped me. And I made lots of pies, and my family ate them. I even ventured into other fruit, store-bought blueberries and peaches that I turned into pies. But they weren’t as good as the pies made from Charlotte’s cherry tree.

But last summer there was no fruit to pick. That reliable cherry tree had become ill and the ends of its branches were dying. It produced few cherries and I worried about it. A tree surgeon came and pruned it way back, to stumpy limbs with few branches.

About the same time, we learned that Charlotte was sick, too. A lifetime non-smoker, she had gotten lung cancer anyway, but had no reason to think of it when her body began to hurt. Neighbors learned of Charlotte’s illness when flashing ambulance lights colored the night sky.

Charlotte got well enough to come home for awhile, and she was back and forth to the hospital before Hospice assisted with her death at home, well before the springtime brought buds to any of the trees. First the ornamental pear tree in my yard bloomed, then the weeping cherries and crabapples. There was a crabapple in Charlotte’s yard, next to the stunted cherry tree.

I kept watch over that tree, hoping for life in the face of death. And one day, when I walked by, I saw tiny, hard buds at the ends of its few branches. It was alive.

Maybe there would be cherries enough for a single pie, I thought, but maybe not this year. Certainly, there wouldn’t be a bounty of cherries for a neighborhood full of pies. Time would tell.

I’d like to give this story a happy ending. But the tree never fruited again. And the first autumn after Charlotte’s death, men in coveralls came with chain saws.

And that’s how things stood for a while, until this spring when a new, slim whip of dogwood was anchored in the earth just uphill from where the cherry tree lived. But although it alludes to future flowers, I won’t ever develop the affection for that tree that I had for Charlotte’s cherry tree. It is still merely a stick in the ground, and as mature as it ever gets, it will never make cherries.

— Maggie Wolff Peterson writes from Winchester, Va.

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