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Close to the Ground

The ground cherries carpeted the garden and we scooped them up in large, open handfuls. One basket. Two. Three. A bushel. I am a lover of the garden but not of the gardening, so when an unexpected bounty like this one delivers when I can participate, I smugly admire myself for having the wisdom to plan perennials that will grow and spread and lay down their treasures for the likes of me. No little red hen am I.

The garden is my husband's. How a man who tosses his keys anywhere, buys a new hammer when he can't find his old ones, wears mismatched socks and can't seem to pick up his underwear, can create a garden of such order, is a wonder to me. It's a miracle. Most of the garden -- which is one beautifully mulched, mossed, composted, raised bed -- has straight rows. An army of beets and onions. Multicolored flags of chard. Brussels sprouts standing at attention; tomatoes and zucchini securing the perimeter. The yellow string that he used to delineate the rows for planting still stands.

The other end of the garden, however, is mine. Surprise asparagus here and there, new and old, short and tall. Strawberries overflow the garden wall into the neighbor's yard. There are a couple of sad eggplants haphazardly planted in an, "oh, this looks like a good spot" kind of strategy. And the crowning glory: ground cherries everywhere, everywhere, everywhere! Glorious.

What even is a ground cherry, you may ask. Not so common in the modern age, but folks who remember the glories of sorghum, horehound, buckwheat and sarsparilla will know. It took me two summers to find the original plant. Nobody at the big box stores ever heard of it. I finally found it at a small country hardware store, the kind of place where you can get that ONE odd sized screw missing from the porch lamp, pick up some milk replacer for that orphaned squirrel and a metal washtub without having to special order it. I hear tell that folks from out east (as if they'd know) call them husk tomatoes. I take issue with that kind of nomenclature, because a ground cherry never tasted like a tomato to me. Ground cherries taste like memories.

Ground cherries. When they're ripe and perfect, the little round fruit is golden yellow, the husk is paper brown. A wee bit of practice, and your one-handed, de-husking technique is perfected. Then it goes quickly. Five or six hundred ground cherries ... how many memories? Rich and sweet, like the fruit itself:

I'm six years old and running through the apple orchard behind my grandma's house. There are pigs in the orchard, and they're pretty scary. Grandpa is drinking from the tin cup that hangs from a hook on the windmill. I climb the wooden fence and he hands me the cup. The water is sweet and oh so cold. He catches a yellow striped kitten for me (the barn cats are pretty wild) and tells me something that makes him laugh, he wheezes when he laughs and somehow I know I'll remember that moment for my whole life. I don't understand what was funny, but seeing his delight and sharing that moment squeezes my heart with the happiness that comes from attention paid.

I'm seven and the ticking of my grandma's cuckoo clock is a constant, calming sound in the quiet house. It sings at the hour and half hour, danceable tunes that are loud and fairly echo through the kitchen, reverberating through the dining room and front room. It's early for ground cherries but grandma picked a few already, mostly green, and saved them for me. They are ripening on the side porch, which smells of dust and Irish Spring. I'm told there is Butterbrickle ice cream in the huge freezer -- big enough to hide a body in -- and bending over the edge to reach it, I almost fall in! My overactive imagination paints the story of being found, half frozen, reaching out from the brink of a chilly grave to whisper, "I told you I couldn't reach it ... "

I'm eight and I'm hanging out with my Uncle Joe, who still lived on the farm with grandma and grandpa and worked the land. He is going to feed the pigs. He hands me a big stick and says, "if any of 'em come at you, just whack them on the snout with this." Then he sets me off the tractor just next to the pig feeder -- of course the pigs come running because he's filling the feeder, but I think they are all running at ME! So I start whacking snouts left and right! Grandma give him heck for that stunt while we eat lunch (potatoes at every meal) but Uncle Joe just laughs and laughs. He eats his big lunch by swapping around everything on his plate, together. I like my food separated: meat there, corn here, potatoes on the side. There's a kernel of corn on the end of Uncle Joe's nose.

At Fourteen, my little sister is born. She's a sweet surprise gift to us all, my parents are 44 and 55 when she graces us with the joy of her affectionate self. A good baby, who never cries because there are at least seven people around at all times to attend to her every need. A sunny afternoon for hanging laundry, Mom, with basket on her hip and my sister now a toddler in the yard ... suddenly missing. Mom calls us all on the hunt for baby sister. Now, this is a small town, and no child could really get very far without notice, but no amount of logical reasoning of fear-squelching could really quell the terror in the thought that SOMETHING happened to this little one. Could she have taken her pet chicken to the neighbor's porch? No. Could she have climbed into the rabbit pen to pet the baby bunnies? No. Was she picking the heads off of the irises in the front flower bed? No. With great relief and and wiping of foreheads, the shout is made! She is found! My brother points her out -- there she is, in my Dad's sprawling garden, next to the duck pen where black ducks Eenie, Meenie, Miney and Moe are napping ... hidden in the vast tangle of vines and leaves, her champagne-colored hair blending with the late summer colors of harvest. She is squatting, diaper clad only, eating ground cherries.

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