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Eating Cherries in Winter: How my family found happiness

“I think we need some cherry pie,” said my mother. This wasn’t about a sudden sugar craving or putting the finishing touch on a dinner party menu. The need for cherry pie or a small quantity of out-of-season cherries meant we’d just passed the exit for “Bad” and were headed for “Worse.”

On this particular night, my single mom was doing the household accounting. While math was never her strongest point, the results of this equation were clear: We had enough money to pay the phone bill or buy food, but not both. She nodded at me, her then ten-year-old daughter. “Yep. Time for cherry pie.”

My mother had been taught the “When the going gets tough, go get cherries” solution by her mother. My nana, Matilda, was one of those archetypal grandparents whose stories of hardship were oft-repeated, not to make me feel like a lazy kid who had it too easy – I wasn’t, and I didn’t – but to inspire me. Matilda didn’t endure; she rose above.

My grandmother had been born into a large family of Irish/German immigrants who, in lean times, ate meals of nothing more than bread and applesauce. At 16, she went to work as a department store secretary, just a few months before the Great Depression hit; she became the sole support of the family. Yet she always looked back on her childhood as being fun and insisted, “We may have been broke, but we were never poor.” To her, the word “poor” was a stigma that could beat you down and could keep you there permanently. Being broke, though, was a mere rough patch that one could get through and rise above.

Not many who came from Matilda’s neighborhood rose above it, but no one who knew her as a stylish secretary to Robert Moses, one of the most powerful men in New York, could ever have guessed at her background. Matilda simply decided to become an elegant woman. Her style was distinctly French: one classic dress, accessorized with scarves and inexpensive jewelry. Her hair, makeup, and nails were always perfect, and to save money, she did them all herself. She looked more at home on Fifth Avenue than her real home, the last stop on the six train in the Bronx. She read the dictionary and collected new editions the way others read pulp novels. The woman had panache and the resilience of a prizefighter.

Still, Matilda was not immune to life: Fault lines appeared in her marriage. Health issues – the result of malnutrition during the Depression – arose. And then there was money and the consistent need for it.

A small store around the corner from the office where Matilda worked sold fine candy and fruit. In the heart of the winter, the bleakest time when summer seems like an improbable fantasy, there would be cherries. Out of season, from some other, warmer place, these were vibrant red promises that things would get better.

Matilda would buy a few handfuls – they were expensive, but worth every penny – and if it wasn’t too cold, she and her teenaged daughter, Carolyn (my mother-to-be), would sit on a bench in Central Park to savor their antidote to hopelessness. “Is there anything better,” Matilda would ask, “than being in the middle of Manhattan and eating cherries in winter?”

For my mother and me, this was not just a family story but a legacy. Nana taught us that, in difficult times, we had a choice: We could let our circumstances dictate the brightness of our spirits, or we could create our own little spark. Our phone may have been turned off that week, but Mom and I had hilarious fork duels over those last precious bites of cherry pie.

Summer cherries are lovely, but expected; they hold no magic for me. In the deepest heart of winter, though, when I can’t imagine warmth or that this (whatever this is now) will pass, I look for cherries. They make me think of Nana, and they taste of hope.

For ways you can enjoy cherries with your family this winter, check out Cherry Bomb: 12 ways to eat this summer fruit in winter.

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