As a child, my favorite season was summer. I remember being young, perhaps six or seven, and my grandmother, my brother, my sisters and I would go to an orchard several miles away to pick peaches.
We could have bought them at the supermarket, but store bought peaches were never as good as fresh ones. Picking peaches was yearly ritual until I was in my early teens. I reached puberty and thought that I was too mature to go pick fruit with my family. I never realized how lucky I was until I no longer had the opportunity to feel a peach loosen and relinquish it's hold on the tree that had given it life.
One day, my boyfriend and I were traveling to Gatlinburg Tennessee for a short vacation. As we sped along Interstate 26, signs began to appear as if ghosts of my childhood.
"Fresh Peaches, 2 Miles Ahead"
I watched as the sign disappeared behind the car and grew tiny in the rear-view mirror. Somewhere inside I had a longing for a peach. I needed to feel that soft yet firm fruit in my hand. It had been years since I felt he tingle of a peach's fuzz as it pressed against my lips, begging to be consumed by the child inside of me.
The aroma of a fresh peach is southern, it's summer, and it's special. I don't know of any other experience to compare it with. It is a jewel plucked from a tree, a prize that the victor can eat without guilt or remorse. I couldn't stop fantasizing about my childhood as we passed sign after sign advertising fresh peaches.
Finally the desire overwhelmed me and I begged my boyfriend to pull over at the next orchard.
He didn't want to stop, and when he asked "why?" I told him. I had an insatiable desire for a peach. He informed me that there were numerous markets in Gatlinburg. I was quick to point out that there is no comparison to a freshly harvested peach and I felt sad that he had never enjoyed that particular experience.
Rick agreed to stop, if I would make it quick, and I practically jumped from the Jeep and made a bee-line for the peach farmer who had taken up residence on his porch. Something about that grizzled man reminded me of my father.
The old fellow was sitting in a cane backed rocker on his front porch, a piece of straw in his mouth, pondering the wonders of the universe. Or perhaps wondering what his wife was cooking for dinner.
Something inside me wanted to call him "Daddy," but I didn't. It seems that people become too restrained as they age and I was no different.
It seemed like an eternity before that old farmer even said hello but it was only a second or two before he was welcoming us into his world. A woman, (I assumed his wife),opened the screened door and offered me a glass of tea.
"You come ta get some peaches, Honey?" She asked. "Oh, what a silly question, of course you did!" She scolded herself and disappeared inside her home.
The sweet tea was crisp, cold and wonderful, but I could smell the peaches as I stood on the porch with Rick and the farmer. Time seemed endless as the sun scalded my shoulders. I enjoyed talking with the man, but I wanted a peach.
Now, to a person not from the South, taking the time to talk with the farmer might have been an inconvenience. I have known many people who only wanted to complete the task at hand and move on. But part of the beauty of the South is taking the time to talk to people; getting to know them, even if only for a few minutes. As I visited with the farmer, the peaches grew their own voices and called me to them.
The sweetness of ripe fruit overtook any other scent that might have attempted to make its way to my nostrils. As I craned my neck towards the recesses of the orchard, I could see people harvesting fruit, and I wondered if they worked for the farmer or if they were customers off the highway.
The sound of rattling ice startled me and I turned around to see a young man standing near the door. He smiled at me and motioned for me to follow him. As we made our way down the steps, the old farmer warned me to watch out for bees.
The young man was dressed in jeans and a cut-off tee shirt. He had a farmer's tan on his neck and arms. His blond hair was cut short and spiked on top and he was wearing an earring in his left ear.
I followed him into the orchard where he handed me a basket. "If you need any help, just ask. I'll be right over there." He pointed towards an undefined area where I could find him should the need arise.
The dirt in the orchard was a rich, dark red and it caked into my high heels as I walked through it. Finally I removed my shoes; discarding them beside a tree which had already been relieved of its precious bounty.
Basket in hand, my eyes were set on a tree near the middle of the orchard and I hurried. Almost running, I could not wait to reach up and pull my prize from the tree.
There was an odd feeling all around me, like a vague memory, but more than a dream. It was a memory of having been there before. I loved the way that old ghost visited me that day;it reminded me that I gave up picking peaches too soon.
I decided then and there, that if I ever had a child, I would make certain that he or she would enjoy this experience at least once in his/her life. But as I made my way across the red clay and the hay that had been spread under the trees, there was an uncertainty about my life that seemed grossly out of place. That uncertainty, I later realized, was grief at the loss of my youth. It was grief at the loss of no longer picking peaches.
Now, for someone who has never had the pleasure of picking fresh peaches, there are a few things that you should know. The trees are not tall. The branches are pruned so as to make them strong enough to hold the burden of hundreds of pounds of fruit. And the limbs are cut so that they hang low over a person's head, and reaching up is not too difficult.
The farmers often have milk crates set out so short people (like me) will have something to stand on if necessary. Warnings about bees are not without merit, but bees are usually more concerned with the fresh fruit at their disposal.
The tree I chose was shaped like a deformed diamond. The branches were filled with huge, ripe, luscious peaches. Every one I touched seemed willing to give its sweet self to me. I put the basket on the ground and scooted the crate beneath a branch that looked as though it was about to break.
I reached for a fruit the size of a baseball. It was almost perfectly round, but had a little elliptical dent on one side. It was perfect.
Its skin was rosy pink, light yellow and dark red all on one piece of fruit. Just as I had remembered, the peach was warm to the touch. I didn't want to climb off the crate repeatedly, so I pulled my shirt loose from my jeans and made a sort of blouse basket. One by one, I pulled peaches from the tree and placed them in the shallow of my shirt.
They were so pert and smelled so good. I knew then that it was not so much the peaches that I longed for, but the act of harvesting them. For that short half hour, I was a little girl again.
I could hear my grandmother telling me how great the ice cream would be. I could see my brother and my little sister fighting over who would carry the basket back to the car. I remembered the look of relief on my mother's face as my grandmother rescued her from four children for half a day.
That peach orchard was not just a place to buy fruit, it was a sanctuary for people who spent too much time working or watching television. It was heaven because our grandmother loved us enough to take us to an orchard rather than giving us cookies and hours of televised cartoons.
My shirt was filled to capacity. It had pulled so far away from my body that my breasts were almost exposed. I knelt down and placed the peaches in the basket. One by one, they all found a place in the yellow-tan wicker vessel.
I lifted the basket and proceeded towards the house. I had picked my fruit and breathed in the fresh, fruity air. It seemed I had accomplished what I had intended, but something was missing.
I climbed the steps to the porch, feeling a bit confused. I should have been happy just then, but I was not quite sure what I was feeling. I could almost describe myself as feeling lost.
I put the basket down and looked at the old man and my boyfriend. Rick was sweating; he wasn't accustomed to this heat, but the old man looked as comfortable as he had when we arrived. The farmer smiled at me as I stood there looking at him. I just didn't know what to say.
"Well, cutie, you get enough of my peaches? You looked mighty sweet reaching up in that tree. Yes, I was watching you. Reminded me of my daughter when she was little. Says she hates peaches now. Had to pick too many when she was a child."
The man removed the piece of straw from his mouth and reached into the pocket of his faded blue overalls. He pulled out a small knife which he opened and handed to me.
"Well, aren't you gonna taste one before you run off to the mountains?"
Instantly I knew what was missing. I had to have at least one peach before I left. That was a tradition. The customer always tasted one before leaving. Seeing the expressions on the faces of his customers, as they enjoyed their first peach of the season, was validation for his season of hard work and worry.
I bent over and took that tricolored peach out of the basket. I had placed it on top because it was the only one that looked exactly like that. It was unique, so it had to be delicious. I raised it to my nose and deeply breathed it in.
Sweet, fresh, summer. I handed the knife back to the farmer. I was not going to cut into the flesh of that beautiful fruit with a steel blade.
As I slowly raised the peach to my lips, I could sense everyone watching me as though I were about to drink some magic potion, or poison. The old man and his family, along with Rick, were staring at me as I raised the fruit to my mouth.
Before the peach ever touched my lips, I could feel the tickle of its fuzzy skin. I chose the dented, elliptical side to bite into.
The juice escaped from the wound and dripped out of the corners of my mouth. I could feel the nectar flowing over my chin and down my neck, into the top of my bra.
We paid the farmer six dollars for that basket of peaches and as Rick and I walked towards the car, I took one last look back. The old man and his family were sitting on the porch enjoying their tea and laughing.
The peach trees, lined up like so many obedient soldiers, beckoned travelers from the highway. I looked towards the orchard. I could see my grandmother, brother and sisters picking peaches.
I closed the car door and left the memories in the orchard to pick peaches with the ghosts. But this time, I left that piece of myself that should have been left there, many years ago.