The indulgence of bittersweet raspberries brings back fond memories of a beloved great-grandfather
By Jessica Zerbe
The first time I bit down on a raspberry after my great-grandfather’s death, I cried.
I had just returned home from an exchange trip to France, one foot still on the last bus step, when my mother broke the news: he had stage four terminal lung cancer.
There are no words that seem right when a loved one dies. The sky isn’t as blue, the children as happy, or the smiles of those around us ever as bright. Death takes a toll on the body, and on the soul. Every experience is altered by a new perspective. Memories that once brought pure joy, now also bring pain.
I remember the bumpy car ride, looking out the window as huge buildings and the tops of row homes flashed by, and turning to face my younger sister, who was also in the back seat. In front of me in the passenger seat was my older sister; driving, my mom. My brother bitterly occupied the last seat in the back, his arms still crossed in anger from shouting “Shotgun!” a few seconds too late.
When our seatbelts restrained us from flying forward, and we felt a tense pull back, we knew we had arrived at my great-grandparents small townhouse on Moss Street. Quickly, we unbuckled our seat belts, got out at the curbside door, and rushed up the uneven bulge on the first step of the staircase. We knocked, and without waiting for a reply, barged through the creaking screen door, the pungent smell of cigar smoke filling our little nostrils. Seated on the couch, as always, was whom we called “Grandpop Oudinot.”
Grandpop would take a long drag from his cigar and, if we were lucky, rise to meet our embrace. Most times, however, especially when we grew older, we would be bending down to compensate for his lack of motion. Then, we’d haul off to the kitchen where Grandmom Oudinot was doing the dishes or having a cup of coffee at the table.
The routine of affection would be repeated: friendly smiles, one-way hugs, but added now was the procession towards the candy jar, which was always filled with gummy hamburgers, hotdogs, and pizzas, as well as other tasty treats. Chocolate, the colorful little dabs of sugar on white rolled paper, lolly pops, and Rolos– a confectioner’s cookout– the all you could eat buffet of sugar and a candy high that sustained us just long enough to finish our visit, crashing in the car on the way home.
Eventually, we’d make our way to the back yard with Grandpop following, passing the old, rotted stuffed dog on the three-legged plastic chair just outside the door. Some of us ran to the rickety old swing set and tried our luck with fate, the rest of us went straight to the bush filled with shades of red. Raspberries. Soon, we would realize we forgot containers, and scurry back inside where Grandmom was waiting for us with them in hand. Just like that, we were back at it- plucking and plucking berries off the bramble and into the tupperware bowl. It was as if it were some sort of contest. I remember bickering with my siblings over the ripest, most rich in color berries, and stealing a few out of their containers when something caught their attention long enough for me to sneak my plump little hand in and out before being noticed.
Hours passed, and we spent them devouring the berries, after washing them of course, (or maybe not) swaying on the wooden swing set, and chasing each other around the alley we knew we weren’t supposed to be in. As dusk approached, we went back in, said our goodbyes, and left with hugs, a kiss from Grandpop on the cheek, one from Grandmom only if we were lucky, a container of raspberries, and five dollars that was to be kept a secret in each of our pockets.
My great-grandfather was no elite man, in fact, he — like all of us —had his many flaws and downfalls. Nevertheless, I overlooked the unmet expectations life had so forcefully pressed upon him and focused on all the positive personality traits he passed down to me and the memories that, like a raspberry leaving seeds in my molars, remained afterwards. In my molars and in my mind, like the bittersweet taste that never fails, he had never changed in my eyes.
Though I credit much of my liking for the berry to Grandpop and his memory, I have an inclination, almost a fascination, with the bitter-sweet lingering oomph a raspberry tends to leave you with. A raspberry is an acinus fruit, acinus meaning “any cluster of cells that resembles a many-lobed berry.” Each juice-filled lobe is itself a microfruit, with its own seed, and sometimes unique flavor. I see this berry in my family, my history; in my grandfather’s memory, which, as a whole, we cluster to, each with our own memories.
* * *
I reach for the smooth-but-worn white refrigerator handle, extend my hand toward the small plastic box, poked and prodded with holes for maintaining freshness. Or, sometimes, a biodegradable option- the faded green gives a more hand-picked feel.
I head towards the sink, grabbing a bowl from the cabinet overhead and lift the faucet’s handle until a steady, but not harsh flow of water comes out. From under the spigot the rinsed berries go into my dish, and I head to the couch, devouring a few on the way. I let the berry roll around my mouth, playing with the little hairs that peak through the surface. I bite down, my teeth squeezing the juice to every inch of my tongue, sending my taste buds into a frenzy. My jaw begins to ache with a sour-pang; the first berry in particular brings this sensation the best. One after another, the microscopic sensory receptors on my tongue conclude: oh yeah… this is where it’s at. Within minutes, all berries without any mold or mush have been inhaled. Though I know I should slow down– savor the taste– I can’t; the high I get every time another berry hits my tongue is unmatched.
One day, I hope to have a raspberry bush of my own. I want to experience the joy, that of Grandpops’, with my own children and grandchildren. I long to sit on the grass on a beautiful, early summer night and watch as little kids, my little kids, fumble around the yard, baskets in hand, trying to pluck the ripest bunch before they’re all gone. It’s a riot– that of siblings and family histories and perhaps a man that has been both bad and good in his life.
* * *
My grandfather lived in a cloud of smoke, the news of him having cancer was not a bit surprising, though I was taken back. A few weeks earlier all was fine. Then, right before I left for my trip, he had fallen down the narrow, rotted staircase from the top down. The fire department came shortly after, and there was supposedly another problem with the gas stove being left on and unattended. The details are still blurry, after all, I had a suitcase to pack. I didn’t know this was the end. I didn’t know that within a matter of weeks, I would have gone from visiting my clear-minded Grandpop to attending his funeral. He died in April of 2017.
My great-grandparents were separated and thrown first into the hospital, then to nursing homes that they would never come out of. The mental state of my beloved Grandpop plummeted, he was smoking cigars that were not there, and talking with a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth that didn’t exist. My sister, in his mind, was his wife. I, a stranger. I have always considered myself to be a strong person, yet I went to visit him only once, and had to excuse myself from the room to sob in the hallway. I just couldn’t bear to see him rotting away in a need of a diaper change. After his admission into the home, he passed: alone without his family or his wife by his side, in a smelly, feces-coated bed.
My Grandpop was the first loved one I had ever lost, and his death hit me hard. It took me a while before I could even bring myself to look at old pictures, or reflect on the past without starting to cry. I couldn’t indulge in my favorite snack, or even raspberry tea. I stopped picking the berries that grew out back, and watched as they, like he, rotted away. It took me time before I realized it didn’t have to end this way.
I moved forward, as we all do, as we all have to do, and now can look back at the old rowhome and the raspberry bush now growing in my mom’s yard and smile. Grandpop Oudinot will be forever stuck in my mind, and while sometimes I still find myself grieving while reminiscing, I find peace in the memories we have shared, and the berry that brings them all back.