Once, about eight or nine years ago, I caught a glimpse of some wild red currants growing by the side of the road. The road traced the spine of a rolling, lightly wooded hill in West Virginia; my husband and I were on our way home from a wedding, and he was driving—forty, maybe fifty miles an hour—while I half dozed in the passenger seat. But my eyes must have been at least partially open, because I saw the berries dangling behind a thin screen of leaves and branches, glowing in a reaching bit of sunshine. And when I saw them, I felt some enormous thing—a feeling, you could call it for the sake of convenience, though it seemed much more than that—quickly rise in me and then, just as quickly, evaporate.
Twisting in my seat, I watched as the road unraveled behind us, but of course the berries were gone. And although I was strangely sad about this, I didn’t say anything to my husband, because I understood that there was no easy cure for the emptiness I felt; I knew that even if we turned back and found that same spot, those same berries—even if I picked handfuls of the tiny, ruby-red spheres and studied them for the rest of our twelve-hour trip home—whatever it was that had risen in me, then so painfully disappeared, could never be retrieved by such prosaic means.
More recently, I’ve seen red currants, still attached in grapelike clusters to their delicate twiggy stems, at the farmer’s market, where they sell for the incredible price of seven dollars a half-pint. And I have bought the berries, two pints at a time, and stared at them in their green cardboard cartons, and willed that something, that enormous feeling, to come back to me: that emotion which is not quite happy and not quite unhappy, but a fragile mix of both.
We all have our preferred modes of mapping the mysteries in our lives, ways of trying to understand the people and things around us, the secret events of our own souls. Books are one such mode—the one I trust most (or at least refer to most often)—and it’s in a book, in a short story by Chekhov, that I’ve found a set of clues with which to chart the complex mess of emotion I feel about those seemingly innocuous little red fruits—red currants. The story is “Gooseberries” (written in 1898), and as the title suggests, it concerns one man’s obsession with that other, slightly larger, slightly seedier member of the genus Ribes. Gooseberries tend to be whitish or green in color (although there are purple and pink varieties), with faint vertical striations that make them look, at least to my eye, like mini hot-air balloons. While gooseberries are just as delicious as currants—puckeringly sour but, afterward, illuminatingly sweet—they are best used in jams and pies rather than in the fragrant jellies and liquors for which the latter are so well-known.
There are some odd points of overlap between Chekhov’s story and my own earliest memories of red currants. For instance, my sister was standing next to me the first time I ever saw red currants, and “Gooseberries” too concerns a pair of siblings—two men on the brink of old age: Ivan and Nikolay Ivanovitch. There’s also rain, for on the day Stephanie and I stood side by side picking those fussy, easily bruised little fruits, we did so in a cool gray mist of soaking drizzle; “Gooseberries” both opens and closes with rain—“damp, muddy, unwelcoming.” Perhaps I make too much of these small coincidences. Perhaps such specifics are beside the larger point, and yet that point is both built and governed by specifics.
My grandmother lived in a green-shingled house at the end of a long, sparsely populated dirt road, and when my sister and I were very young, we often stayed the weekend there. This house consisted of three rooms—two downstairs and one up—and there was almost nothing to do there, especially when it rained. On the day I’m thinking of, it was, as I’ve already said, raining, and my sister and I had been bickering with one another for hours, when the weather finally let up. No doubt with some relief, our grandmother handed us a pot, told us about some berry bushes we could expect to find at the edge of her yard, and gave us instructions to pick.
Not speaking to one another, Stephanie and I crossed the wet, flattened grasses and went about our task. The berries were extremely thin-skinned and squished easily between our groping fingers, tinting them a pale pink. No doubt we sampled as we went, but I suspect the taste didn’t inspire us much since red currants are so tart as to be nearly astringent, and the phantom sweetness that blooms as a faint aftertaste is something that could, I think, enchant only an adult (accustomed as we are to the charms of deferred pleasure). In any case, when my sister and I returned with our harvest—a couple of inches at the bottom of the pot—our grandmother sprinkled the berries with a bit of water and a lot of sugar, then put them on the stove to simmer while she mixed up a batch of biscuits.
“Mixed up a batch of biscuits”—what a homey-sounding phrase that is! But for exactly this reason, it’s inaccurate. I feel a curious tug toward dishonesty as I recount the details of that long-ago day: an urge toward the kind of romance so often associated with grandmothers and childhood reminiscences in general. Yet the truth is, my grandmother—my mother’s mother—wasn’t really the homey type. She wasn’t jolly or sweet or cozy the way grandmothers are supposed to be. Instead, she told Stephanie and me dirty jokes and serious, unhappy, decidedly adult stories—stories that made me worry about things, about existence in general.
Long and bony, my grandmother’s face was stained with patches of permanent deep purple under the eyes. She had a pronounced under-bite, but instead of making her look stupid or obstinate, her jutting chin suggested a kind of sly thoughtfulness. She kept a balled-up tissue forever curled under the last three fingers of her left hand to cover her mouth when she coughed, which was about every four or five minutes (she’d had whooping cough as a child, and the disease left her lungs weak and scarred).
For a time—maybe a year or so—she told us that a spider had made its home in her hair and that she had to take special care not to crush it when she slept. I don’t know if she really believed this or if she just told us this story thinking it would amuse us, but even as a child I suspected the former, and so merely smiled and nodded, not wanting to disillusion her. I don’t mean to paint a picture of my grandmother as a crazy person, but she was, at the least, a lonely and limited one. Long accustomed to poverty and to violence, she was, toward most people (including her own children), a bitter and troublesome woman.
Although for the most part a loner, when her children and their families visited on holidays, and her tongue was loosened by her favorite aperitif, “angel kisses” (crème de cacao topped with half an inch of heavy cream), she was a busy gossip, often about her own kids. It seems to me, looking back on these holiday gatherings now, that my grandmother craved, maybe even reveled in, the state of maternal despair, because she subtly goaded her children—my mother, aunts and uncles—into arguments, many of which turned physical, while she stood on the sidelines and literally wrung her hands.
But toward me and my sister—her first grandchildren—my grandmother displayed a benign indifference. And when we stayed at her house we were left mostly to our own devices while she sat for hours near the dust-dimmed window in her kitchen, reading cheap paperback novels and drinking cup after cup of tea lightened with evaporated milk.
If my grandmother was not the cozy type, her house was even less so, and the scent of those biscuits while they baked wouldn’t have seemed homey so much as complicated. Even laced with the delicious smells of shortcake and sugared currants, the air of those three close little rooms would also have carried its usual load of other, less lovely smells: mildew, coal dust, and lingering, embarrassing odors from the bathroom (which lacked modern plumbing, meaning the toilet had to be flushed with a bucket and the bucket had to be filled at the red-handled pump in the kitchen, and this was so laborious a procedure that it was done only when absolutely necessary). There was, as well—although I didn’t recognize it as such—a smell that I think of now as a smell of sadness, a penetrating staleness or sourness that was, I believe, the product of years of overcrowded misery, because my grandmother raised all seven of her children in that three-room shack, overlooking (with her queer brand of dissociative passivity) the forced intimacies her husband imposed on their daughters, the beatings he dealt their sons, and even the barrages, both physical and verbal, that he directed against her when he was very drunk.
I knew none of these things then. I came into this knowledge only slowly, over the course of decades—cobbled it together from partial explanations received from various quarters, mostly in response to my inquiries concerning the deeply damaged (by drugs, alcohol, mental illness) adulthoods of my aunts, uncles, and mother. As a child, I knew only the smells. And as a child, I loved going to my grandmother’s house. In fact, the excitement I felt when we turned off the parkway and onto the dirt road that led there was as thrilling to me then as any feeling of exhilaration or adventure I’ve experienced as an adult. At this intersection, everything changed: the shadows grew deeper and greener, the sunlight paler and more delicate, the air softer, denser, charged with pollen and the dust kicked up by our car wheels. Of course, it wasn’t just the road that was so exciting, it was the destination as well; because there were ways in which my grandmother’s house was to me, then, nothing short of magical. For instance, there was a hole in the crumbling foundation where all the half-feral dogs and cats that roamed the neighborhood came to have their litters. Every time we visited, it seemed, there was a new crop of squeaking, blind, and wobbly creatures to hold and fuss over. And there was the large container of Nestlé Quik at child-height in the kitchen cupboard. And there were the endless layers of peeling wallpaper in the stairwell, which Stephanie and I spent hours picking, and which came off in chips that were chalky or sometimes grainy to the touch, and which made a never-ending, ever-changing collage of cabbage roses, hunting scenes, garden vegetables, Scottish plaids … In other words, as a child I understood my grandmother’s house to be simply pregnant with mysteries. And although I understand, now, that some of these mysteries were too adult for me to comprehend, I also know there were other mysteries that only my sister and I, as children, could appreciate.
Time and perspective twist and shape understanding in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” too. This is apparent even in the structure of the story, in which we find the tale of one man’s obsession nested within another man’s highly editorialized account of that obsession, while that account, of course, is nested within Chekhov’s even larger construction: “There are two of us brothers … I, Ivan Ivanovitch, and my brother, Nikolay Ivanovitch, two years younger”—so begins the story within the story told by Ivan (in whom we find, distinctly, a streak of Hamlet) to his friends, Burkin and Alekhin.
After a long, wet day out of doors, the three men have recently bathed, changed into warm clothes, and settled into plush armchairs in an elegant drawing room complete with chandeliers, carpets, gilt-framed portraits of the host’s ancestors, and a beautiful servant girl who silently pours them tea. Nikolay (in whom we find a dash of Quixote) is described by his brother as “a gentle, good-natured fellow” who, in pursuit of a ridiculous dream, turned slowly into a greedy pig, a man who looks “as though he might begin grunting … at any moment,” all on account of his one and only “definite desire”: to buy himself a small farm somewhere. Ivan’s tale, which satisfies neither Burkin nor Alekhin, details his brother’s mindless work as a government clerk, sitting in his office, writing out the same papers day after day. Nikolay, Ivan tells his friends, spent his most productive adult years dreaming only of how he would one day own a plot of land, and of how this land would return to him certain freedoms he’d known in childhood:
[He pictured] the garden-paths, flowers and fruit, starling cotes, the carp in the pond, and all that sort of thing … These imaginary pictures were of different kinds according to the advertisements which he came across, but for some reason in every one of them he had always to have gooseberries. He could not imagine a homestead, he could not picture an idyllic nook, without gooseberries.
Indeed, we soon come to realize, gooseberries constitute the organizational concept of Nikolay’s entire existence. They do not, however (despite the title), constitute the organizational strategy of Chekhov’s story.
“Gooseberries,” in fact, might best be described as being organized around the idea of disorganization—the simple, sloppy pain of being human, of being constantly tripped-up by our ever-shifting understanding of the world around us and steeped in the endless hopes, doubts, and ambiguous desires of our hearts. Which is why, when Ivan tells his companions about his brother’s first harvest of homegrown gooseberries, we taste those berries not only as Nikolay did (“How delicious! … Ah, how delicious!”) but also as Ivan did (“They were sour and unripe”). And when Ivan—a man who owns that “there is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness”—confesses that in a world filled with disease, poverty, alcoholism, malnutrition, and madness, he found the sight of his brother bent over a plate of unripe gooseberries ridiculous, even repulsive, we can’t ignore the fact that he utters these sentiments while seated in the lap of luxury himself.
I’m not saying that red currants call up for me, as gooseberries do for Ivan, a sharp awareness of life’s inequities, nor do they provide, as they do for Nikolay, direct access to some ancient, possibly imaginary joy. Instead, they are a small but potent, sweet-and-sour lesson about ambivalence, about the fact that happiness and unhappiness are rarely, if ever, separate emotions. Rather, the one (though which one depends on whether you are more of a Hamlet or a Quixote) is always suspended in a matrix of the other. It’s a mix that grows more and more complex as we age, as experience weaves itself through our memories and time rearranges our perceptions of the past.
And yet there are bits of the past that never change, that are set in our hearts like gemstones—permanent, singular. What my grandmother concocted that wet, gray Sunday is just such a memory. The recipe couldn’t have been any simpler: she broke three biscuits (which I remember as being on the thin side, oblong, and baked to a golden crunchiness) into three bowls and then, over each of these, ladled some of the cooked currants (reduced by now to a ruby-red syrup—lumpy but even more sparkling and translucent than the rain-damp berries had been) and, finally, topped each bowl with a dollop of loosely whipped cream. Then she made three cups of milky tea and we sat together at her kitchen table, on mismatched chairs, under the subtle but ceaseless ticking of a clock whose inner workings were hidden behind the glossy surface of a mass-produced painting (and whose hands orbited the face of the clock depicted in the painting), and for a few minutes we were, the three of us, quietly and happily sunk in the simple business of pleasure.
Although our grandmother made this treat for us only once, those few charmed spoonfuls—juice-soaked, voluptuous—have translated themselves into such a cherished memory that I might have eaten that delicacy a thousand times. The deep and lasting imprint of that first (and only) impression—framed, as it is now, by the more complete knowledge of my family’s history—no doubt explains the painful mix of unformed thought and feeling I felt driving along that West Virginia road; it explains the oddly attenuated sense of expectation I feel on those rare occasions I happen across red currants at the market, and the thin and wispy feelings of dislocation I experience whenever I try to re-create that simple dessert for my own children.
These are things I’m good at: sorting the endless grays of ambivalence, dissecting sticky overlays of emotion, analyzing dim shadows of the past. But such elaborate intellectual efforts can’t compare with the mute and certain knowledge food sometimes offers us. The mouth simply grasps some truths more easily than the mind. And on my tongue, red currants will always taste of affection and indifference, comfort and loss, poverty and pleasure. Only not in so many words.
Shortcake and Sugared Red Currants
For the currant mixture:
2 cups red currants
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
Gently boil all three ingredients 10 to 15 minutes on a medium-high flame. The mixture should be thick and slightly syrupy when done.
For the biscuits:
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
Scant teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, room-temperature
1/2 cup whole milk (or cream, or buttermilk), room temperature
Blend the dry ingredients together. Cut in the butter. Stir in the milk (or the cream, or the buttermilk), but only just barely. Lumpy is good. Knead briefly on floured board. Roll out to about 3/4 of an inch. Cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Bake on a lightly greased tray at 450°, 12 to 15 minutes or until golden.
Once the biscuits and the berries have both cooled a bit (but are still warm), break open the biscuits, butter them if you like, then top each with a large spoonful of berries and a dollop of whipped cream. Best eaten with tea.
Kim Adrian is the author of SOCK, a Bloomsbury “Object Lessons” book. Her memoir, THE TWENTY-SEVENTH LETTER OF THE ALPHABET, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. Her award winning essays and short stories have appeared in Agni, the Raritan Review, the Gettysburg Review Ninth Letter, Crazyhorse, the New England Review, and elsewhere. She is the editor of THE SHELL GAME: WRITERS BORROW READYMADE FORMS, and a Visiting Lecturer in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University. More at kimadrian.com.