The Fruit Cellar: A Place of Discovery

My mother preserved things. First and foremost was produce, chiefly from her garden: beets, corn, carrots, cucumbers, peaches, pears, cherries as well as applesauce and stewed rhubarb. Anything that could be “put up” in jars.

In the basement of my childhood home, beyond the furnace room, was a second large, dry, windowless space—the fruit cellar. But oh, so much more than fruit was there. The entire right-hand wall boasted a battalion of colourful glass jars. Row upon row, floor to ceiling, arranged by hue. What an artwork Andy Warhol could have made of that display! Certainly a more vibrant masterpiece than 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans.

Sometimes I sneaked into that storeroom, pulled down on the long string connected to the bright ceiling bulb, dragged a blanket from under the lowest shelf, and sat cross-legged on the cement floor in front of the wall of jars. I peered up in awe at the abundance. Our family would never, ever want for food. We would never be the starving children in a far-flung corner of the world to whom Mother threatened to send any uneaten morsels on our dinner plates. Albeit, a diet of pickled veggies and sugared fruit might become tedious after a week or two. Not to mention that our life expectancy might be somewhat abbreviated.

The fruit cellar housed other treasures. The many wooden shelves on the wall opposite the vivid Mason jars supported all manner of valuable articles that Mom’s I-grew-up-in-the-Great Depression mentality refused to discard.

Once, as I rummaged among the relics I unearthed a grade school scribbler. Like all teacher-supplied workbooks at the time, it sported a bright blue cover with heavy black lines for your name and subject. This one belonged to my brother. George was the name, Writing the subject. Each page had widely-spaced blue lines and a broad left hand margin demarcated with a hot pink line. The book housed only one story, “Blackie.” George’s fierce grip on the pencil etched the large printed letters into the page and dented the one below. The tale was short, only a few sentences; the story tragic, the death of his pet dog. The details scant. A car killed Blackie when he ran onto the road.

How odd. I never knew we had a dog. Did we have a dog? George was four years older than me. Did the dog die before I could remember it? Did George make up the story? Maybe there never was a dog. But, from the force of the printing, George must have felt a terrible loss. Why was there only one story? All those empty pages. Mom would have said it was wasteful. Yet, she preserved this book. This single story. Why?

So many questions. So many emotions. So much to take in. I replaced the notebook on the shelf and told no one about my discovery. I wonder, did I ever venture into that space again? More than six decades later, the questions remain unanswered. That bright blue scribbler is the only thing I recall from the left side of the cellar. I still can’t account for the intensity of the experience. Could it have been that my young heart could not grasp the contrast between the colourful life preserved in glass jars and the sudden, inexplicable death of a small black dog?

A Room of My Own–Disappointments and Treasure

A “Sunbonnet Sue” quilt similar to mine

In the late summer of 1955 our family moved into my first fully remembered house. The exterior featured a variety of autumn-hued bricks augmented by vivid coral and lime- green mouldings. Sited atop a steep hill, it beamed its kaleidoscopic newness over the subdivision. The living room showcased two plush, citrus-toned swivel chairs, and a sofa upholstered in a complementary prismatic teal. With much deliberation, and a little compromise, for the kitchen, Mom and Dad chose a green tile floor, orange laminate counter-tops, and knotty pine cabinets complete with black wrought iron hardware. Weird and riotous colour combinations, even to a somewhat chaotic eight-year-old.

The one feature I got to choose was the ceiling light for my very own bedroom. Until then I had had to share sleep-quarters with my older sister. I believe she deplored the co-habitation far more than I did. When you are fifteen, private space is as necessary as a lockable bathroom door.

I perused the weighty lighting catalogue with the same fervency as I devoted to the Sears Christmas Wish Book. In the end, I settled on a magical fixture with a round glass canopy where tiny ballerinas pirouetted on an opaline stage.

Move-in day arrived. I scurried to my room. Looked up. And froze. Above me was a piece of square glass adorned with little girls swinging in a pink sky. Disappointment burst into tears. Father tried, without success, to assuage my heartbreak. How could I possibly love girls on swings? I could practise my ballet in the large and open living room or even in the basement recreation area. But, despite there being four children, there would never be a swing in our yard. Father rigorously controlled his domain. The grass, lush and emerald, was mowed to the ideal height and the shrubs, each chosen for its particular texture and hue, were shorn to regal perfection.

With the sleeve of my yellow sweater, I erased my tears. Then, I lowered my eyes to survey the rest of the room. Whoever designed this house harboured no love of little children. The high, horizontal window allowed me to see only a cloudy sky. To take in the scene across the street, I had to stand on the bed. Cats and dogs choose to lie in places with a view to the outdoors. If no low window sill presents itself, they leap unto chairs, the backs of sofas or even tall bookcases to peer beyond. People are the same. They need to know there is an outside as well as an inside. A place of freedom and adventure where minds and hearts can roam.

As an adult, I spent a few months filling in for an art teacher away on medical leave. Her classroom was located in the centre of a vast building. Its two doors opened into two hallways. Several strips of fluorescent lights provided the only illumination. What manner of principal would assign a room devoid of natural light for visual arts classes?

Even though not of my choosing, one thing I did love about my new bedroom was the hand-made quilt that decorated the single bed. Mother told me that Grandma had given it to me when I was too small to remember. She had saved it until I was old enough to take proper care of it. A wide blue border with crossed strips inside it divided the counterpane into sixteen boxes. Within these frames posed sixteen identical girls. Each wore a simple calico dress and a bright, over-sized bonnet—each outfit a different combination of happy hues.

For many years, every night, after I had knelt in prayer beside my bed, I nestled under the covers and whispered to the silent, faceless quilt children. I shared with them my brave deeds, my joyful adventures, my academic accomplishments, my heartaches, my fears and my deepest longings.

When, at eighteen, I left home for university, Grandmother’s quilt travelled with me. As I unfurled the coverlet over my narrow bed, I never feared my dorm-mate’s censure. The bonnet-girls—keepers of my secrets—wholly belonged there, with me.