‘I got you some cherries’ - he said when I called and caught him in Tesco’s in the middle of a weekly shop. I smiled and something so long forgotten that almost unfamiliar stirred up in my chest and a flurry of butterflies filled my stomach.
The weekend before I told him I liked cherries and that they reminded me of my childhood. What I didn’t say was that to me cherries smelt and tasted of sun, and innocence, and home, and mum…
When I was growing up in Ukraine there were two cherry trees in our back garden. Every spring they would explode into blossom filling the garden with the fresh, clean, flowery smell, the smell of spring. Within a couple of weeks the blossom would fade away making the way for new tiny cherries. They grew and before we knew it, these babies would ripen up under the hot Ukrainian sun giving the tree an injection of red.
This is where my brothers and I would appear. Like a little army of hungry invaders, who had never seen cherries in their lives, we would pillage the trees, plucking and eating the cherries straight from the low hanging branches. Hardly any of the cherries made it to the table for family consumption – the trees were bare within a matter of days after the three kids raid.
But by some miracle mum would always manage to salvage some of the cherries and those used to make it into varenyky, Ukrainian stuffed dumplings. They bear a slight resemblance to Cornish pasties, but only in their shape. The traditional varenyky in Ukraine would be stuffed with either mashed potatoes, or stewed cabbage, or sweetened cottage cheese. But every summer when the berries were in season we would stuff varenyky with cherries and/or strawberries.
The varenyky making process on 3 Tolstoy Street involved the whole family. Mum would make dough and cut it into shapes, my brothers and I would stuff the varenyky and dad was in charge of boiling them, tossing with butter and sprinkling them with sugar (if they were the sweet ones).
They of course had to be eaten straight away while fresh and hot. The big bowl full of varenyky would be placed in the middle of the table and five forks would reach into it. I still remember the sweet smell, the sugary, buttery coating, the way they would explode in my mouth with hot sour berry juices.
My baby brother would lick the sweet butter coating and chew the crust until he had no choice but to bite into a varenyk and prepare himself for a sour berry explosion in his mouth. (Although the explosion not always happened in his mouth, and I can still see his cute little face covered in red berry juices).
Those were the years when the happy childhood memories were created. The memories of summer, sunshine and cherries; when I was carefree, didn’t have to work, pay the bills and could sleep for as long as I wanted. The magical years when mum was alive and healthy; the long hours spent in the kitchen where she taught me to cook and to bake; and told me fascinating stories about her childhood. I still remember the smell and the warmth of her rustic but very happy kitchen…
A few hours later I was sitting in the conservatory having dinner with my own new family that I was creating the happy memories with. We were talking about school grades, scooters, DeeQ’s new girlfriend and making plans for the weekend. As the evening was progressing, the grown-ups moved on to the second bottle of wine and the negotiations with Little Dude over eating all the vegetables. The usual after-dinner entertainment involved boys playing the music as loud as possible, singing along and dancing.
And as I looked at the boys, so happy and carefree, I couldn’t help but wonder, what memories would they take away from our family time? What smell or taste, or sound will bring them back to our family dinners?
That evening we all shared the cherries; I don’t know whether it was the long forgotten taste of my childhood or Little Dude sitting on my lap, but as I reached to my neck and touched mum’s wedding ring that I wear on a chain as my lucky charm, I realised I was finally home. For the first time after leaving Ukraine I was home again.