The Pomegranate

by Katherine Reback
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dog.jpgMy mother had a way of inventing traditions.  “It’s Lizzie’s birthday!” she’d proclaim periodically and everyone in the family would don a party hat and sing happy birthday to one of our English Springer Spaniels.  The announcement of the dog’s birth and subsequent celebration of it could occur at any time – on April 5, say, or December 12.  It could happen twice a year or once every few years.  But however haphazard, it became a tradition. 

Every so often, we’d gather in the living room; my father on the bongo drums someone had given him for a birthday present, my sister on her recorder, me banging the big copper-bottomed soup pot with a wooden spoon, and my mother on piano, playing from our “American Folk Songs For Piano” songbook.  “Love oh love oh careless love,” she’d sing, entirely off-key, “Love oh love oh careless love, love oh love oh careless love, see what love has done to me.”

And every fall, sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, before it was dubbed a ‘super food,” before anyone knew it was a powerful antioxidant, before antioxidant became the ubiquitous, go-to word, on our kitchen counter would appear a perfectly round, soft-ball sized, crimson pomegranate. “I got a ‘love apple’ today,” my mother would announce.  And the ritual would begin.

poms_lg.jpgI didn’t know then that the pomegranate was a symbol of righteousness in Jewish tradition, or an emblem of fertility in Armenia and that in Iran, it is still looked upon as something which can give long life.  I only knew that that night, in our den, this noble fruit would be shared among my sister, my father and me.  And that there would be peace.

My sister and I did not get along.  And by this I mean never.  For me, it had been love at first sight.  I took one look at her and she was my absolute hero for life.  She took one look at me and I was the reason for everything that went wrong in hers. 

Not only had she been the only one, she’d been the first:  the first child, the first grandchild, the first niece.  For five years, she had everybody in her sway. But then I came along and her life as she knew it was over.

I got in her way.  I annoyed her.  I tailed her like a miniature private eye, wanting to know where she was going, what she was doing and with whom.  Whenever she went out, I’d shriek, “Me, too!”  Whomever she played with I yelled, “Me, too!”  I pursued her with a vengeance and she rebuffed me with equal fervor.

“One day,” said my mother, “you will be friends.”  Ha replied my sister.  Ha.

kath-jane-kids-pic.jpg Sure, we shared the same DNA, but that was about it.  She was tall.  I was small.  She was direct, I was evasive.  She loved The Twilight Zone. I couldn’t bear it.  Just hearing Rod Serling’s voice would send me fleeing up the stairs in terror, my hands flying to cover my ears.   “Baby!” she’d yell after me.  “Big Baby!” And to be honest, I was.

Another case in point: she always saved her turkey skin for last, slowly savoring every browned, crispy bite as if it were desert.  I, on the other hand, devoured mine the instant my mother put my plate down in front of me.  Apparently, my sister told me years later, I’d try to swipe her skin off her plate which she’d stop me from doing by harpooning my hand with her fork. I have no recollection of this and I’m almost positive it was a trumped up charge.

I wanted her toys.  And later, I wanted her shoes.  But what we both wanted was our father’s attention.

We adored him.  He was smart, with a quick, dry wit, charming and handsome.  But he worked hard.   And when he came home, he was not particularly emotive to anyone, except our mother.  But then there was pomegranate night.

That’s when the three of us, my father, my sister and I, would position ourselves side by side on one of the green couches in the den.  My mother would tuck a dish towel under each of our chins and lay another across our laps.  Then she’d hand us each a Limoge dessert plate on which lay a perfect wedge of the pomegranate that she’d just cut, the embedded, ruby red arils glistening from the white flesh.  “Be careful,” she’d warn as she went back upstairs.  But we never were, smacking our lips with every bite, the sweetness of the seeds infused with tart tannins, the juice instantly staining our fingers, while we watched my father’s favorite show, ”Sergeant Bilko.”

I never knew why my mother didn’t join us on those nights.   I never asked her.  She died in 1995 and breast cancer took my sister seven years later, leaving my father and me to validate or correct each other’s memories.  I really can’t be trusted:  I invent things for a living.

pomegranate_butterfly.jpg My father lives in Florida now.  I call him.  I ask if he remembers the pomegranate tradition.

“I always loved a pomegranate,” he said, and you can hear in his 89 year-old voice just how much he does. “But that juice. Spurts out everywhere.  Ruins everything.  You’ve got to be careful.”

I think that’s why mom put those dish towels on us, I say.    

“Could be,” he says, noncommittal.  “Could be.”  There is a long pause.  I am hopeful.  “The den in that house,” he says finally, “was downstairs from the kitchen.”

“Yes,” I say.  “It was.”

“We lived in a split-level then.” 

An architectural conversation is not exactly what I had in mind.   I tell him I remember watching Bilko one pomegranate night when they inducted a chimpanzee into the army.

He laughs.  “Bilko,” he says, “now that was a funny show.”

And that’s about as far as we go with that.
 
My sister would have remembered.  She would recall sitting on the dark green couch swathed in towels, pages of The New York Times and The Stamford Advocate spread out under our feet and over the coffee table, a paper armada anticipating an onslaught of juice.  She’d remember that the episode in which the army inducted the chimpanzee was called “The Court Martial” and that the chimp’s name was Harry and they called him Harry Speakup because when his name was called and he didn’t reply, someone said, “Harry Speakup!”  And that was that.  And she’d remember the three of us laughing so hard that we didn’t even notice the red liquid dripping down our chins, onto the towels, dying them a permanent garnet.  I like to imagine that she would share my snapshot, the one where she is sitting on one side of my father while I sit on the other.  There are no angry words, no hurling of insults or battles to be won at any cost.  That night, there was enough of my father to go around.  It was just us.  And the pomegranate. 

“Mommy was right,” said my sister, shortly before she died.  “She always said one day we’d be friends.”

Yes, Mommy was right.  Though on another matter, she got it entirely wrong.  The ‘love apple,’ as it turns out, is a tomato, not a pomegranate.

Except, maybe, for one day a year, in our house, in the den.

 

 

Katherine Reback was born and raised in Connecticut.  She was a screenwriter, speechwriter and essayist.

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