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Mirabellen and pot roast

After a quick breakfast, Josef and I drove through the older part of the village and past the old Weingut. We left the road and rolled up a grassy byway to his parcel of land. He handed me a couple of plastic pails and opened the fence into his orchard. The sun came and went behind the clouds. The trees grew thick and full and layered the ground below in perpetual twilight. He scooped up a handful of yellow plums (mirabellen) from the ground. His hands were stout, vintner’s hands, old beyond their years but strong and lively.

“Ah, ja!” he said. “See here, these are the ones.” He held a plum up in his fingertips. “Full, ripe, and juicy, without blemishes.” He popped it in his mouth.

We searched the ground and picked out the best fruit. He bent at the waist, his legs straight, his hands expertly sifting out the finest plums. We picked up what we could. He retrieved a long shaft of wood he kept in the orchard for shaking trees and jostled the yellow plum tree. Fruit fell like rain, and we resumed filling our bucket.

I ate the plums whole. The juice filled my mouth with liquid sunshine. I sucked the pits clean and rolled them around with my tongue until I couldn’t accommodate more. I spat them out and filled my mouth again and again.

After a short time, we’d filled our buckets to overflowing. The tree still hung heavy with fruit. Plums covered the ground, and we couldn’t move without mushing them into the soil. Despite our five full pails, it looked like we’d hardly done anything at all. We left the buckets under the mirabellen tree and walked up to the peach, apple, and pear trees. All were unripe, except for a few peaches that yielded easily to our touch. They melted in my mouth. My eyes rolled back in my head.

I walked up past the peach trees to the end of Josef’s land. The strip wasn’t wide but it was long. Vineyard grew on three sides away from the grassy road where the gate was. The vineyards swept up the steep incline of the Herrenberg. When Josef grew his Rieslings on this parcel, he produced enough wine for household consumption and for gifts, with enough left over for the cellar. He caused a village scandal when he ripped out his vines and dedicated the land to orchard. He pruned sparingly, which resulted in big trees with tons of fruit. On two sides of the plot, he trained apples and pears onto the old grape trellis. Their short, angular arms hung heavy and lush.

He wandered through the trees, testing fruit with a squeeze here and a shake there. His face wore a look of contentment. Through depressive fug, I still sensed happiness to be in this beautiful place with my old friend. He asked me questions about home, and we talked about gardens and his orchard and trees.

“I don’t have much time left, you know” he said.

“Ah, Josef, I know, but don’t say that.”

“Why not? It’s true and you’re adult enough to accept it,” he said. “I’ve lived a good life, I think. Marlies and I have raised four great kids. Markus was a good kid and headed somewhere before the cancer. Barbara (who was several years younger than I) owns her own business school in Trier. Bernd built a long and successful academic career in economics, like Joachim.” Bernd was Joachim’s older brother and vice-president of the university in Paderborn. He’d become a well-known expert in industrial relations and sports economics. “What more can a man want?”

I was silent, looking at him. He smiled.

“Come on, Junge,” he said, wrapping his arm around my shoulders. “Life has been good to me. It’s being good to you. Virginia is a very smart person, and I’m sure she’s a good nurse. She has many good things to say about you, I bet. Nick, well, he is a special lad. You should be proud. When you’re my age, and you will be. You’ll also look back on a full life.”

He slapped me on the shoulder. “Now, we have work to do.”

We spent the afternoon making mirabellen preserves and jam. I pitted the plums with a device that pushed the seed out of the fruit with a little plunger. Marlies placed the plums in a large pot and added pectin. The fruit was so sweet she didn’t need sugar. He wanted to be a part of the relationships he saw so ripe and full around him and worked to show it. He and Josef gathered jars and lids from all over the kitchen and garage, where Josef kept a large pot of boiling water on a hot plate to process the jars of preserves and jams. They worked well together, each directing the other by finger pointing. Then, Nick helped Josef and Marlies in the kitchen while Virginia and I scrubbed lids and jars. Nick stirred the boiling fruit and assisted in bottling and processing the jars of jam. He set the table for lunch, and fetched water and coffee. We stacked up some fifty pints of jam. Marlies would make dozens more in the coming weeks. She would give away most of it in presents, keeping enough table.

Virginia and Nick sat quiet after the jam-making, reading on the porch outside, while I set the table. I’d forgotten how much we ate when I visited the Fricks. It seemed we ate all the time. Every morning we had bread with jam, eggs, milk, and fresh butter. Afternoons, Marlies made something hot—soups, meat, knüdel, cooked vegetables, such as carrots and beets from the garden, and stews. Every meal had some meat—salami and cured ham, bratwurst, and once pot roast.

Poor Nick. His food portfolio is very narrow. This comes, in part, from his experience as a small child. My sister went down the meth hole long before she became pregnant with Nick. After he was born, he lived with her for two and a half tumultuous years. Many days, from what we can gather, she left him in front of the television with chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese while she carried on her drug habit and the other addictive behaviors in the bedroom. He found making a fuss over food garnered his mother’s attention. Food also served as the most effective way to wring care from my parents. When he arrived at my parents’ house, he refused to eat anything but sugar cereal, processed chicken nuggets, fries, and canned green beans. By the time he joined us, he’d widened his tastes to include pepperoni and salami. He showed visible stress when confronted with foods he’d never eaten before or that challenged him in texture or color.

Now with the Fricks, we’d convinced him he needed to try everything Marlies put in front of him as a courtesy. He did yeoman’s work. He tasted it all faithfully, and even avoided grimacing as he usually did when he faced unwelcome food.

I, too, ate everything Marlies made for us. I’m a vegetarian, except when I’m at the Fricks. We talk on the phone at least once a month, but the subject of food never comes up. Marlies taught home economics at a school in Trier for four decades and could’ve worked around my dietary restrictions with no problem. But it would’ve been extra work for her to cook a separate meal for me. I don’t eat vegetarian to be a pain in everyone else’s neck. Plus, my German wasn’t up to the task of explaining the complications of dietary leanings, which are based on conscience and stubbornness. With my vocabulary, I’d have to wind around in complicated and mind-wrenching ways to get even part of the message through. My job as translator for my family was hard enough. So, I skipped it and ate bratwurst and loved it.

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