My Pickled Past

Written By: Kate  Koplinka-Conquest

The salty, sticky breeze barely blew through my grandparents’ house in the dead of a north fork summer. It was a small, but practical three bedroom cape; stigmatized by exactly what you would think a 1960’s ‘never been updated’ home should look like. Brownish linoleum, outdated puke colored shag carpets and original, single paned windows that rattled in the winter. Air conditioning? Yea right. Not in the home of two Pollock’s that understood the worth of a dollar. We were lucky to be able to sit in front of a fan, which supposedly added to the charm of the north fork. Escaping my parents’ house in the summer was the highlight of my week, because Grandma’s house was literally in the middle of a farm. My life as I knew it began at the Strawberry Festival in Mattituck and ended with a day trip to the Orient point ferry when it was far too cold to not wear a jacket. I knew exactly when we were close to my grandparent’s house because the car started to stink. As locals have grown accustomed to, this is the normal odor of cabbage fields. The fart jokes never ceased to challenge my brother’s creativity, always thinking up some new way to make my mom and I laugh once the aroma entered the car. As I fought to sit in the ‘back back’ of the station wagon, we would turn off the main road and see just a few cars in our travels. Fortunately, Jamesport was just close enough to make a vacation day out of a visit to grandma and grandpa’s house. The particular day I find myself revisiting in my mind over and over was late August, 1987. I was five years old. My mom packed my brother and I up into our wagon (later referred to as the wooden shaggin’ wagon) and we ventured 25 miles north east to spend the day with my father’s parents. We got used to the commentary while journeying north; ‘look kids, that’s the house your father and I lived in when we first got married’ followed by; ‘Look, that’s Aunt Rosie’s house’ and ‘kids, look! That’s the school Daddy went to’ as we drove through Riverhead. Usually, my grandmother would be waiting at the front door for us upon our arrival. Dressed in a pastel, patterned housecoat, and sometimes with curlers in her hair, she always opened the screen door and stayed at the top of the stairs, waiting for us to run up to her and not daring to get her house slippers sandy. Immediately, she smothered us with hugs and welcomed us inside to get our candy bags. We waved my mother goodbye, as she was off to Southold to spend my dad’s lunch hour with him. After the thrill of being away from our parents fleeted, the TV programing got boring, the house got too hot, and the call of the outdoors was too strong to ignore…so my brother and I ventured outside. The sun had passed it’s “I am going to burn little children” point, and Grandma warned us to be careful of bugs. In a stern voice, she dared us not to go too close to grandpa’s garden. Their yellow shingled house was situated on a large, open lot and surrounded by fields. Depending on the season, the crop was always different. Cabbage in the late spring, corn in the summer, and pumpkins in the fall. There was a separate garage adjacent to the house that we always explored, and a decent sized driveway for us to use chalk and draw. The ‘way’ backyard was forbidden, and was not to be entered by anyone other than my grandfather. He was also known as the ‘green thumb’ of the family although I recall never understanding why his thumb was pretty much flesh colored. The man could grow anything. My dad would brag about him saying; “Just ask my father, he could grow radishes in the middle of a desert”. I recollect feeling as if my grandfather was some sort of agricultural wizard. The only part of the garden we were allowed to touch without my grandpa being there was the strawberry patches. Since they were picked months before, we had no business near the garden. The garden was large, and was not gated or protected which meant we could easily maneuver in and out. So, during a normal game of ‘hide and seek’, I crawled pass the eggplant, squirmed past the peppers and found myself amidst a sea of cucumbers. As any kid would do, I dared to touch a cucumber as it dangled in front of me. I was surprised that it was hard, but kind of soft, and a tiny bit mushy at one point. The dark green vegetable wasn’t held too tightly to the vine in which it was growing from. I was rudely reminded that I was in the middle of a hide-and-seek game, and the voice of my brother echoed, “Ready or not, here I come!” I couldn’t help but panic and I accidentally pulled the cucumber off of the vine. Seeing the rustling in the garden, my brother approached and said, “If you are in there you are going to be in BIG trouble!” I crawled out of the garden sobbing and holding the cucumber I broke. My brother looked pleased that I was finally going to be the one that got in trouble. “Grandma is going to be so mad at you!” he taunted. Dressed in a light green flowered summer dress, white sandals and pigtails, I wept all the way to the door with the cucumber in my hand and fessed up. “I am so sorry Grandma; I broke one of Grandpa’s plants.” To my surprise; my usually stiff, and rigid grandmother picked me up, wiped my tears and said, “You’re in luck, Grandpa was waiting for that one and will be happy that you found it”. Relieved, but still worried I was too way too nervous to play. The impending homecoming paired with my fear of disappointing my grandfather was intense. Around 5:30pm his loud, rickety car pulled up, and his face was bright with joy. He got out of his car, placed his lunch box on the driveway and said, “Where’s my girl?” He knelt down and I leaped into his arms and snuggled into his embrace. He quickly established that something was wrong, and when he walked into the kitchen, still carrying me in his arms-the cucumber was right on the counter. I then noticed a pot full of water almost boiling on the stove along with a cutting board and knife right next to the cucumber. My grandpa put me down, and followed my grandma into the living room after saying to “wait right there”. When he came back he said, “Katy girl, you are in luck! We are going to turn that cucumber into a pickle!” Pondering what that term meant, I was overcome with relief. My eyes then took notice of the many jars on the counter-which may have always been there but I never took notice. There were clear mason jars filled with red, green and yellow things. My grandpa was a cook on a Navy ship in world war two and was a wonderful chef. Our entire family spoke of his tenacity to cook for ‘tons of people’. He suited me in a makeshift apron, and rolled his sleeves up. He took the cucumber and said, “You can peel ‘em or you can leave the skin on, it’s really up to you. I prefer the skin on. It’s where all the vitamins are!” I smiled. “You can slice them diagonally or horizontally, again, it’s up to you! I like them the long way”. He took my hand and placed it over his as he sliced the cucumber. After putting the slices in an empty jar he added the boiling water, followed by vinegar and spices. He tightened the top, and explained that we would soon have the pickles that I had loved since I was a little girl. “What are those other jars” I questioned my grandfather. “Those are beets, potatoes, peppers, and cauliflower. See Kate, the freedom in pickling is you can pickle just about anything, anyway you like it!” I could feel that there was a sense of identity in this statement. Perhaps not, but the pride my grandfather had while he shared his method, and taught me how to pickle will stay with me forever. Months later, he gave me that jar of pickles with a pink bow on it. To date, I cannot look at a jar of pickles without feeling nostalgia for my ‘pickled pastime’ and the memories of my grandfather and his beloved North Fork garden.