When summer was drawing to a close and the cranberries were ripe on the vines, we knew my gram, Rose, was about to make her famous cran cobbler. She’d toss out an order to fetch some pans from the hidden pantry in her bedroom, and like Pavlov’s dogs, our mouths would water as we foraged through the pantry for the largest cranberry-picking pans we could find. During the fall and winter months, when the farm sat vacant and alone, this hidden pantry served as a safe for valuables. “Valuables” to Penny and Rose were nothing but a few lamps, some handmade quilts, and the “good” pots and pans, which were always mismatched and dented. But these were their treasured heirlooms.
While blueberries could be picked on the hill just across from the farm’s mailbox, cranberries grew much farther away. It would be an all-afternoon trek through the woods until we met a great field of wild berries ready for the capture. We had a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs that morning, as Penny sat with that morning’s newspaper, a bottle of ketchup at hand.
“Well I’ll be,” he started, his backhand smacking the front page. We all looked up from our plates with questioning eyes. “Bank robbery in town and the fugitives at large,” he continued. If this had been a scene from a movie, a loud “dun dun dun” would have resounded from the screen. But this was the farm and my grandpa Penny said not another word, trading the newspaper for his bottle of ketchup and continued to enjoy his breakfast. We kids were left to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and boy did our imaginations run wild.
With pans blazing, we set forth like cowboys, a red handkerchief tied around my neck, in search of cranberries, yes, but now our mission was twofold. We had fugitives to capture, thousands—no, millions!—of dollars to uncover, and the thirst for adventure to satisfy. We had not a clue what we would do, nor how we would defend ourselves, if we did happen upon a company of outlaws. In those days, fear did not guide our footsteps. And so into the thick woods we embarked.
While the rest of our cousins stayed the course, following the dirt path Penny had carved out many summers ago, I steadied my picking pan atop my head and chose to follow Cousin Lisa and the road less traveled. Sure, we both got poison ivy and later found ticks hiding in the folds of our socks, but it was all worth it for what we discovered in those woods and the tales that would grow as tall as the pine trees surrounding us. I hacked at weeds with my pocket knife and drew stars in the brush with my walking stick as Lisa grew smaller in the distance. I admit I was lost in a daydream when Lisa’s voice hit each stone between us like a hammer.
“Chris” she shouted, “Hurry!”
I dropped my stick and ran, my tin pan hat popping up and down like kernels atop the stove. If Lisa were in trouble, I needed to rescue her! My mind was a montage of every cowboy western ever made. But when I got to her, she was alone, standing on the bark of an uprooted tree.
“Should we go in?” she smiled.
“Go in? Go in where?” I asked.
I joined her atop the tree trunk and followed her eye line. There in the clearing stood an old wooden cabin with a layer of thick moss on its roof and a porch in need of sweeping. A rusted bicycle lay propped against a barren tree trunk. As we got closer, we spied empty beer bottles tossed in a cardboard box and a shadeless lamp in the window. We looked at one another, and huge smiles spread across our faces.
Lisa tried the front door knob, but it wouldn’t budge, nor would any of the windows. As far as we could see, there was no one inside, and all the bags of stolen money must’ve been hidden under a mattress or under the floorboards, because we didn’t see them either. It did, however, appear lived in, and this was enough to confirm our suspicion.
We made our way back to the beaten path and through the woods to the cranberry fields, where the rest of our cousins were busy picking with pans half full. We told them of the fugitive cabin in the woods and the box full of empty beers but added a few colorful details. The shadeless lamp in the window was now a giant safe and the rusty bike a getaway car. It was our right as storytellers to embellish, after all.
While the young ones were fascinated by our tale and begged Lisa and I to take them to the fugitive cabin the following day, Rose was anything but thrilled about a gang of bank robbers potentially hiding out in the woods not far from where her grandchildren slept. Not to mention, the season was drawing to a close. She and Penny would soon lock up the house and head back home. The thought of leaving her “valuables” unattended did not sit well with her, so she did what any kind and generous and temperate grandmother would do. She scrawled a note and tacked it to the front door:
For the next few days, I watched as my gram, Rose, pulled pan after pan from the hot oven, the smell of sugar and cranberries permeating the entire house. A huge bag of black walnuts was already on the kitchen table, a down payment from a neighbor for one of Rose’s cobblers. Similar gifts would start arriving once that familiar scent drifted into the valley.
In the final hours of summer, when each cobbler had cooled and been wrapped in foil for the ride home, I was tasked with removing every pot and pan from the kitchen cabinets and placing them safely in the hidden pantry. Each year, there seemed to be more and more miscellaneous items—a rolling pin here, a sifter there—items brought to the farm and forgotten, but items that, to Rose, were like silver charms fastened securely to a bracelet. If asked, she could recall who brought what and match each tool to a dish that warmed the bellies and hearts of those she loved. I must admit, I didn’t handle these things with much care, as I stacked and tossed them into that cramped, covert space in my grandparent’s bedroom. To me, a young kid who found bank robbers thrilling and a private cabin in the woods my playground, this was junk. It would take years, perhaps even up until a few minutes ago, to convince me otherwise.
One of my Gram’s tarnished and dented pans hangs from a hook among my bright and shiny stainless steel. I had never used this pan to bake a single thing. I wouldn’t have dared. But when my children were young, they too used it to pick berries and collect stones and, to my dismay, house slugs that had washed onto our walkway after a rain. I was never quite sure why I kept it over the years as I moved from a college dorm to an apartment and then to a house of my own. But my sister called me today, not more than a half hour ago, asking if by chance I had Rose’s cran cobbler recipe.
“No, I don’t think that I do,” I replied, knowing that if I did have it, it would take days to find amongst all the other junk I never thought about, but could strangely never get rid of. “Try Lisa,” I offered. When I hung up the phone, my mind started to wander, much like that day in the woods as I drew stars in the brush with a walking stick and hacked at weeds with my pocket knife. It got me thinking about picking cranberries in the field with my cousins and how if we dropped a single berry, Rose would make us pick it up because “every berry was precious” and deserved a place in her cobbler. I thought about the fugitive cabin and the note she tacked to the front door in hopes of keeping robbers at bay and her beloved farm safe and sound.
Lost in this daydream, I started perusing the recipe books I did have in my cabinet, mostly gifts from my wedding that I had never touched. And in an old, worn book, I found my Gram’s recipe folded and sleeping, the words “sugar” and “cranberry” scrawled beautifully with love in her hand. And like Pavlov’s dogs, my mouth started watering as I made my way to that old tin pan.
Chris & Lisa through the years...
Lisa not too thrilled about her fancy dress
Jarts, oh my...
Chris a bit skeptical of Lisa's technique
Lisa a bit skeptical of Chris's technique
Growing apart doesn’t change the fact that for a long time we grew side by side; our roots will always be tangled...
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