I read a short excerpt from Katherine Mansfield’s journals today, along with her short story “Bliss”. Pears and pear trees feature in both.
“They were so bright, canary yellow – and small. And the peel was so thin and the pips jet – jet black.”
It’s hard to grow pears outdoors this far north. Our growing season is too short; our winds are too sharp; our nights are too cold. I’ve tried, and only ever managed to produce a single, small, hard, bitter fruit.
I’ve been thinking again this week about my maternal grandparents. They were young adults in the 1930s and 40s and like all of that generation, their lives were affected by WW2. I remember after my grandfather died in 2002, helping my mother to empty the bureau in the dining room of his house (now in the dining room of my house). Amongst lists and other administrative debris we found letters between my grandparents written during the war. I sat and read a few at the time and they contained deep affection and quite ordinary wishes – to be home, to go dancing together, to simply have each other’s company. Pedestrian on the one hand, but striking on the other in that war puts even the most pedestrian wishes out of reach. I have a vague memory of my grandfather, or maybe it was my mother, telling me about signing up when war broke out. He was a young man working for Barclay’s Bank and he and some of his fellow employees were advised by an older colleague that they should sign up quickly. Not a rush of patriotic fervour but a dose of brutal pragmatism left over from the last war; sign up and choose where you go – don’t wait to be conscripted. I believe my grandfather joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, a non combatant arm of the military.
My grandmother died when I was very young and when she was also comparatively young (11 and 68). Her third round with cancer. I was very close to her and it’s her I take after most in my family. My siblings are both over 6 foot tall and bean poles, my sister has inherited my mother’s way with numbers. By comparison I am the family oompah-loompah – 5’5″ on a good day – with a decidedly suspicious bent towards the humanities and a slightly evil sense of humour. I was sent for solo holidays to balmy Kent from the age of about 7 and learned to knit, sew, play Canasta and other card games. Most of the card games involving bluffing and my grandmother was superb. When she was dying I was given the choice to see her and spent a week in and out of Guy’s Hospital in London with my mother instead of being at school. I suspect some small amount of bluffing was still going on.
My grandfather died suddenly and peacefully at 82 and I helped my mother organise his wake. Afterwards I started to empty and clean his kitchen cabinets and the wardrobe in the spare room. The memory of war remained strong for many of his generation and I know a number of older members of my family hoarded sugar until the day they died. Many kilos of sugar, kilos of dried fruit, litres of malt vinegar were stashed away. He died in October and the Bramley apple and the pear tree in the garden were both laden with fruit. It was a shame to see all the fruit going to waste, particularly the pears that I can’t grow. I stripped the pear tree and using some of the apples for bulk along with the dried fruit, made jars and jars of pear chutney. The last thing I learned in that house was how to make preserves, and the preserving pan came north with me filled with jars of “Funeral chutney”.
(By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)