OVER THE YEARS, my husband and I have lived in a variety of places. Our first apartment was the second floor of a three-family house in Norwalk. Two coronary-care nurses lived upstairs on the third floor; the landlord, his wife and their two small children downstairs on the first.
Down the street and around the corner was a flophouse, at least that’s what we called it, though we never actually saw anyone dealing drugs or turning tricks. It was a working-class neighborhood of upstanding people, black and white, and older homes in various states of kempt. We had a balcony front and back where we watched the goings-on, such as they were, which suited us fine.
Behind the house was a detached garage, and behind that the spur to Danbury, a single track for the commuter train. The few cars that toddled along during rush hour hooted pleasantly at the intersection a little ways up, and we’d sit on the back porch looking at the western sky and listen to the fading sound of the whistle as it moved up and down the line.
A mulberry tree grew on the bank of the track, gangly and misshapen from years of trying to maintain a foothold. Van Gogh drew one, between bouts of epilepsy, in similarly inhospitable terrain, painting what he considered his best rendition. In spring ours made a lovely arch over the eaves of the garage, and by June it was heavy with fruit — fat, black and juicy.
I made a mulberry pie for Father’s Day that year, 1977, and brought it down to my dad. Blueberry was his favorite, so I figured he’d go for this ersatz variation. He always appreciated anything handmade.
He had just gotten home from playing golf and he and my mother were out on their flagstone terrace. The house was new for them, close to the country club and purchased after we five children had flown the coop. My father was 59, near retirement, a successful stockbroker who now worked out of a local office after nearly 30 years of commuting to Midtown Manhattan. Instead of an hour-long slog on the train, he enjoyed a leisurely ten-minute drive to Merrill Lynch’s Stamford branch office, often remarking that he didn’t know how he’d stood the former all those years. He was approachable now, his demeanor softened and relaxed from the brusque, forbidding father I’d grown up with.
It was one of those perfect days unique to late spring and early Sunday evenings. Dad beamed at my present, took a bite, and declared it delicious. Even my mother was impressed. “Better save the rest,” he said, ever conscious of his good looks. “Don’t want to ruin my girlish figure.”
I drove home thinking of all the things I could do with mulberries. Jars of jam topped the list, individual pots my father could pop open over an English muffin in the middle of coming winters. At home I picked as many ripe berries as there were and stuck them in the freezer. I’d have to find out how to make preserves and locate the little glass jars I had in mind. I could hand-print and illustrate the labels myself, something my dad would appreciate since he was not at all artistic.
By season’s end, splotches of purple stained the driveway and the tips of my fingers. I had enough fruit to last my dad for years.
Then, that August, one early Friday morning, my mother called me on the phone. She was nearly breathless and I knew immediately something was wrong. My father, up at seven for his morning run, had collapsed in the garage, falling face-first onto the cement. He was dead instantly.
When I got there, two EMTs had already loaded his body into the ambulance. One of them was using the garden hose to wash away the blood, the place where my father had smashed his handsome profile, but never got all of the stain out.
I stayed with my mother that night, and before we went to bed she paused by the dresser she and my father had shared. On top was a cut-glass bowl they’d received as a wedding present almost thirty-two years earlier to the day. Inside the rim was a half-chewed Chiclet the size of a pea. My father had stuck it there before his run, one of his tidy habits, ready to retrieve when he returned. Surprisingly, it still had plenty of flavor left, as my mother discovered.