My first 12 years of life were spent at 2621 N. Chester, and when we weren’t camping in the Smoky Mountains over summer break, you would find me in our backyard which was a world of its own.
It was filled with the natural beauty of an enormous pussy willow bush, a peach tree, cherry tree, and an apple tree which I climbed and perched in like the little bird that I was, surveying everything from my lofty perch.
From my perch I could see our small vegetable garden near the cinder alley at the back edge of our property. There was also a horseradish patch that my father contained by placing an old tire around it. When those radishes were ripe for picking my father would grind them by hand at the kitchen table to make horseradish sauce that would bring tears to my eyes as I fervently assured him that I loved it as much as he did.
Looking the other way toward Chester Street I could see the back corner of our house where a very large rambling rose bush exploded every year with hundreds of tiny, beautiful, fragrant red roses. It was truly breathtaking, even to a small child.
The entire length of our long narrow property was lined with purple iris we called “flags”, and they bloomed profusely in the Spring emitting a scent reminiscent of root beer. I remember planting a maple tree and two evergreens in the front yard near our door, and watching them grow up right along with me and my two brothers.
But what I remember most vividly in our backyard is the grape arbor. It was a rectangular structure about 10’ x 4’ and seven or eight feet high. My father had built it and painted it green in preparation for the planting of grapevine starts that were taken from his Uncle Ira’s home in Pennsylvania.
Those starts produced enormous, luscious, dark concord grapes whose taste to this day is incomparable to any other grape I’ve eaten. In the summer when these beauties were ripe we children would perch on the lower bar of the arbor and squirt the sweet insides of the grapes into our mouths, spit out the seeds, and toss the bitter skins aside into the grass. That time of year would often find many of the neighborhood children at the grape arbor with us gorging on grapes.
My father planted those grapes to be eaten, and eaten they were and enjoyed by everyone. As if the vines knew how many children would be enjoying them, they grew bigger and more fruitful each year, and the supply seemed endless.
Maybe that’s why when I was riding my bicycle down the cinder alley to the edge of our block, and I spied an even bigger grape arbor with even more bunches of grapes hanging heavily on the vines I thought nothing of stopping my bicycle and going to get a closer look. Or maybe these grapes were ripe and ours weren’t just yet. I really don’t know why I stopped, but I would live to regret it.
I parked my bike at the edge of the yard and walked all around the arbor admiring it and its’ lovely bounty of grapes. I had just reached high up for a tantalizing bunch of grapes when out of the corner of my eye I saw something moving fast. I turned and saw an old man coming toward me with open, outstretched arms, his legs carrying him forward with a great speed and force that belied his apparent age. I thought for sure he was coming to grab me! I had been warned about men like this! But…just as I stepped back from him he veered away from me and grabbed my bicycle.
As he rolled my bicycle to his back door I became aware of what I had been doing, I had been stealing grapes. As the sick realization of what lay in store for me at home when they discovered what I had done washed over me, I felt a warm, wet, stream of water trickle down my legs, all the way to my ankles and feet. Then the tears began.
I don’t believe that old man said a word to me. I understood perfectly what he intended and I didn’t like it one bit. I fled for home as fast as my wet legs would carry me; my heart and my sobs stuck in my throat threatening to choke me. I reached our yard and wandered around and around in a dazed panic, trying to figure out a way to retrieve my bicycle so I wouldn’t have to admit to my parents that I had been stealing grapes…grapes…which we had an abundance of in our own backyard.
I thought and thought, but couldn’t come up with an answer. I knew trying to beg my bicycle back from that old man would be useless. He was obviously merciless! Why else would he confiscate my bicycle? Didn’t he have kids? Didn’t he know I didn’t mean to steal his grapes?
Finally, my wet pants and need for sanctuary forced me inside and I confessed my crime to my mother. She looked at me, shook her head and told me to go get cleaned up and change my clothes. She then uttered those awful words that struck terror in my heart, “Well, we’ll just have to wait until your father gets home”.
I knew she didn’t offer this threat lightly. She was not usually chary of meting out punishment. In fact, she kept a drawer full of our old wooden paddle toys that had lost their elastic and rubber balls just for that purpose. They were the perfect size for a quick, just punishment on a child’s backside. But, I knew as well as she did that this was way beyond that drawer of paddles.
Hours crept by, painfully, slowly. I thought 6:00 would never arrive, but finally it did. Oh, it did. I was outside sitting on the back porch step awaiting my execution when I heard my father’s car pull up out front. I listened as my mother related my sad tale to him in the kitchen, and then I heard him ask, “Where is she?” My stomach began to curl up on itself and I heard my voice saying, “I’m here Daddy”.
He stepped outside and glared at me, not a word spoken, just a glare. He started walking quickly toward the alley at the end of the yard, and I run behind him, trying to keep up and still remain two steps behind. He doesn’t want me walking next to him. How could he? I’m a common criminal.
The next thing I remember is standing beside him at the mean old man’s front door, my head down, heavy with shame, muttered words falling out of my mouth, apologizing. I do not recall what passed between them after that, but out came my bicycle. I was relieved to see it in one piece, but I knew this affair wasn’t over yet.
As I pushed my bicycle down the sidewalk, my father behind me, I was sure every house we passed was filled with eyes watching me, the thief, going home to receive her punishment. Halfway home I hear my father ask, “Why in the hell would you steal that man’s grapes? You have more grapes than you can eat in your own backyard! Why?” I had no answer for him. I didn’t know why. I had been asking myself that same question all day, “Eleanor, why in the hell did you do that?” I had not been able to come up with an answer that made any sense.
I felt my father’s anger like a hand shoving me in the back, propelling me away from him, out of his sight. How could I have done this to him? Me, who tried to do everything perfectly just to please him. How could I be so stupid and uncaring of his feelings? I knew I was a great disappointment to him that day, and I promised myself to try to never disappoint him again.
When we reached home, to my surprise, there was no further punishment. He must have felt the whole ordeal had been punishment enough, and he was right. I never stole grapes again, and I never trespassed on anyone’s property again.
Many years later as an adult I developed a penchant, a fetish, a great attraction, a love for grapes. Real grapes, painted grapes, porcelain grapes, sketched grapes, glass grapes, grapes of any kind. I believe this love of grapes was deeply rooted in the vines that grew around the arbor on Chester Street, and in the lessons I learned there.
My father became a well-known porcelain artist later in his life, and he had a similar love for roses, so he understood completely when I asked him to paint my beloved grapes on the 3’ x 6’ kitchen island in our new home. In his studio in Nashville, IN he assembled and painted 90 individual porcelain tiles, fired them in his kiln several times, re-assembled them on my kitchen island, and was present to make sure the tile man placed them correctly. The grapes rambled beautifully across the island and he signed his work of art, “Love, Dad”.
However…..when I first asked him to paint the grapes…..he put his head into one hand and murmured, “I should have known”.