The other day, I'd heard a droning sound from the tree in my front yard. On and on it rasped, the chirr of a cicada or whatever late summer insect leered down from its perch up in the branches above. All of a sudden, a memory hit, so powerful in its wake as it brought back sounds, scents, tastes and emotions from a time in my youth.
Late summer had always been a magical time for me as a child. My Italian grandparents didn't have only one vegetable garden in their own back yard, but they rented plots of land in back of other people's houses as well. I would accompany them for tomato picking, and the fresh green tang of the vine as it rubbed against my fingers left an indelible mark on my senses. Curly lettuce, huge Roman beans, green peppers . . . I could imagine Nonna, later in the day, a bandana wound round her head, and an apron stained with the juices of fresh veggies splashed all over the front. I would await the crispy, dried braided garlic and onions which hung from the rafters in her cool cellar. A gathering of Mason jars, freshly boiled and ready for homemade tomato sauces, pickled peppers, mushrooms and more. Her walk-in attic always held trays of parsley and basil, drying in the dark upon the beds up there. The aroma would have put a pizza shop to shame.
It always amazed me that my grandparents were able to discern a good mushroom from a poisonous one. But that is what they hunted in deep woods as we spent long hours in Economy Park and other highly wooded areas while my parents chose to pick blackberries.
We would dress in long-sleeved clothing and long pants, though the summer days were stifling and humid. It never seemed to bother me then. Mom would say, "You don't want mosquito bites all over you." Or, "Those blackberry bushes have thorns. You have to wear long clothes." So we never questioned the importance of our garb, and off we drove in a car without air-conditioning, the windows wide open and the scents of summer flying by.
It would be early in the day as Dad parked the car. The long, dry, un-cut grass near the trails we blazed into the woods tried to tickle my clothing as I waded into it. The cicadas sang their unceasing song above in the trees, rasping out sounds only they could understand. Each of us carried a plastic pail just waiting to catch all the treasures of the woods within. Not a breath of air stirred, but the birds called out warnings to one another that their perfect world would soon be invaded.
Dad always gave me a long stick as we began our trek into the woods. "For snakes," he would say, though thankfully I never saw one. Nonna and Nonno would go off on their own for mushrooms, while me and my parents found hoards of delectable blackberries, bursting ripe and juicy. Though a few made it into my mouth during picking, most plunked into the buckets with the promise of hot pies and jellies. The slightly tart, sweet taste will always bring back my youth. These were the best times. For they were time well spent with loving family, talking and joking with one another and working side by side, though it never felt like work at the time.
When we came out of the woods hours later, Dad would always challenge Mom to a game of "hit the apple on the center of the tree." There were several wild green crab apple trees, and the rotting fruit lay at their bases, all worm holed and oozing. My parents would count how many times each of them would hit the tree with the small projectile, and it became a contest every time. I never chose sides, but cheered each of them on, enjoying their silly taunting of one another and name calling.
After a small snack of crackers, cheese and Lemon Blend from a thermos, we would pack up Dad's trunk with pails and bushels, bringing home a few of nature's tiniest bug critters with us as they clung for dear life onto the stems of our prizes. I would look up into the trees trying to locate the singing cicadas, but never quite able to view one. I waved goodbye to another year, another trek into deep woods, feeling perfectly safe, innocent and very much alive.