Isn’t it the memory of watermelons that makes us want to grow them? It is for me.
I was in third grade, with a teacher named Ms. Hoover. Ms. The first woman I had ever known who wasn’t a Miss, or a Mrs. Ms. Hoover had teased up hair and big brown eyes that seem to have a wise depth to them, in recalling her face today. She taught English, which tied for favorite subjects with me, because I loved to write. I had been writing stories and drawing pictures to go with them as far back as I can remember. I was into haiku big time around those years. The attractive simplicity of telling a story in three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the last line was an irresistible puzzle of endless fun. Then I would draw detailed colored pencil pictures to go with.
I must have written a few stories or verses that caught my teacher’s eye. I remember a favorite part of that class was picking out books from the Scholastic book club and receiving them in class a few weeks later. My twin sister Mary and I had dozens of them. I think it was probably after the last shipment of Scholastic books we got that 3rd year of grade school, that Ms. Hoover wanted to talk to me after class.
She kneeled down in front of me with a smile on her face, saying “Keep on writing!” and presented me with a little book – of poetry, my favorite. It was an anthology, and I immediately fell in love with the title:
Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle
~ and other modern verse
And the gift Ms. Hoover gave me, this sweet thin little book, inspired me that summer with each poem I read. e.e.cummings. Donald Justice. William Carlos Williams. Langston Hughes. The fact that our mom put up watermelon pickles was a glorious bonus. I had the book for most of my adult life, through writing workshops and classes at the University of Iowa, moving up into altitude and the mountain life in Colorado, changes and shifts. And then it dissolved into another reality, somehow. But the title of that poem always stuck with me. I was thrilled today to find it online, when cutting into one of my wee garden watermelons took me back, way back, like jumping into a past life.
I decided since the large softball sized watermelon hadn’t grown in about a month, and the stem attaching it to all its nourishment was withered and brown, that it was time. Would it be ripe? That is a question I haven’t got a hard and fast set of rules to go by for answering. But I took the leap, and this is what I found:
The innards as they revealed themselves were, for a few seconds, a mite disappointing. I guess I had hoped for a bright, full rosy gem of crisp, sweet fleshed melon inside, considering all the watering and lovin’ it had received. But I really had those feelings for just a second or two, then, I flung my arm around the little melon’s shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. Then a bite. Then more, spitting seeds. Ahhh, it was delicious! It had grown in my backyard! I felt like I wanted to further honor this little fruit, so I took its portrait:
It didn’t take long to eat my way through the entire watermelon, as you can imagine, on a hot August afternoon just finishing canning some salsa verde (more on that in another post, later…) I was about to put the rinds into the compost pile, when a thought struck me. That thoughtful gift of my teacher knowing how much I would love the poetry book was a small gesture, that had a big impact. I probably would have gone into writing without it, but…who’s to say. The book was technically beyond my years and I wrapped my heart and mind around it like sinking into hot springs. I absorbed the flair of the verses like steam into my veins and it fueled me, thinking that writers could publish such curvy, amazing rides and have others take the plunge into poetry.
So I decided to elevate the wee watermelon into a higher level of afterlife. I made watermelon pickle out of its’ 2 cups of rinds, and will cherish every bite. Just like in John Tobias’s poem.
Watermelon Pickle (the original recipe in an old book from my mom, Home Canning and Preserving by Anne Borella which I altered creatively from for today’s canning, my first time endeavor)
makes about 4 quarts
- rind of one large or two small watermelon
- 3 cups sugar (or to taste – recipe says EIGHT cups of sugar, if you want to follow that route, go ahead…)
- 4 c. cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons whole cloves
- 5 sticks cinnamon
- 2 tbsp. whole allspice
Peel and remove all green, red and pink portions from watermelon rind. (This is what the recipe says. However, I remember as a little girl LOVING the tiny tinges of pink still left on the pickles coming out of my mom’s kitchen, so I left a thin, sheer suggestion myself.) Cut into 1 inch cubes or slices. Cover and soak at room temperature several hours in a salt solution made from 1/4 c. salt to 4 cups water. Drain thoroughly. Cover with clean water and simmer until rind is almost tender. Drain. Combine sugar and vinegar in large kettle. Tie spices in cheesecloth and add to mixture. Bring to boil, uncovered, 5 minutes. Add drained watermelon rind and simmer until rind is clear and translucent. Discard spice bag. Pack immediately into clean, hot pint jars, leaving 1/8 inch head space. Seal immediately. Process 5 minutes in boiling water bath.
And now the beloved poem:
Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity
During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
When shiny horse chestnuts
Fitted with straws
Crammed with tobacco
Stolen from butts
In family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects
During that summer–
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was–
Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;
And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite:
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.
The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.
~ John Tobias
I believe every gesture we make, everything we say, is important. Zen scholar Thich Nhat Hanh says that one pebble dropped into a pond changes the world. I know that, for me, the effort and gift of loving, the choice of words I make – has a potential of uplifting others, a lot. Taking the time to make my one pint of watermelon pickle made me really smile. It really doesn’t matter where your love is directed. The Universe responds anyway. And you feel good. Paying it forward.