I doubt persimmons are on very many people’s comfort food list, but they are at the top of mine.
Most Americans don’t have any idea what to do with them. When they are ripe, the tangerine-colored skin crawls back nearly on its own, like it is being skinned alive, revealing a bloody orange pulp of thick mucous, like the slime sold to children in the 70s. My nearly grown children cringe when I separate the pulp in the sink, my fingers drooling orange goop. “How can you do that? It’s so gross!” they crinkle their noses at me. I reply that it’s not animal guts, it’s not like I’m not oozing through somebody’s insides. They shrug, unconvinced. I continue to separate skin from pulp and measure it out into Pyrex containers, labeling it in tidy ziplock bags for the freezer. I will cook with the fruit later, will savor the smells and the texture and the tastes, but not today. Cooking with persimmons is a ritual that requires a particular premeditated attention I need time to create.
My maternal grandmother taught me to do this, not through words, but by ritualizing the motions like a religion. I would watch her silently go through these steps with deliberation, a repetitive rhythm of separating and measuring, in a meditative trance that looked something like joy.
Now it is a familial ritual of mine, and it’s the only thing I do that I can directly trace back to her influence.
Grandma Ruth had a stroke when I was 5 years old, and our extended family was told she wouldn’t ever speak or walk again, that her life would be still and silent. I remember how my grandfather retorted, “No sir, she won’t live like that, not her, no siree,” and how completely he dismissed the doctors’ prognostications. She lay in a coma for over three weeks, and as valiant a patriarch as he paraded, Grandpa couldn’t dismiss how much he needed her, how she simply had to recover, come home, earn their income and pay their bills meticulously from her fold-out accordion desk, cook, clean and care for everyone, including their mentally ill daughter.
And so, quite miraculously, she did.
Two years later, with a slightly drooping face, Ruth was impatiently trying to teach me to play classical piano, sitting next to me on the narrow bench, pointing to the notes with fragile frustration. She would get angry that I couldn’t play pieces she used to soar through with ease, but even at that age, I knew her desperation had nothing to do with me or my lack of discipline. Against all odds, she was able to move her fingers deftly along the keys, but not the way she used to, and she didn’t have the language or the patience to effectively guide mine. Even though I was a child with no training, she needed me to take over, to play Chopin as he was meant to be heard, with precision and nuance and clarity. I let her down.
Nevertheless, Ruth managed to run her home efficiently, re-learned to drive, shop, cook and choppily coach piano again, seemingly unaffected when her husband died, continuing her work and her routines throughout the next decade. But it was a small and ever tightening sphere of competency. By the time I was in my early teens, she was a widow with diagnosable Alzheimers. During those years, when our parents spent most of their time leading survival workshops in the mountains and outlying deserts, or prostelytizing across the nation with a bus full of boys, my sisters and I lived primarily with Grandma Ruth and our schizophrenic aunt. We weren’t told there was anything wrong with her, but my mother’s youngest sister clearly believed we were sent from the Devil to set her on fire in her sleep, and guarded the kitchen like a gargoyle. I would wake up on the couch with her steely eyes honed in on my face, where I can only assume she kept constant vigil. Looking back, I have no idea who was taking care of whom. Five intergenerational women in a two-bedroom home, none of us functioning as fully formed adults.
I never heard my mother or grandmother speak to one another.
I have pain in my belly when I realize I have no memories of my grandmother as the woman she must have been in her vibrant years as a bustling matriarch. There are so many memories of her anger and frustration, of fits of rage and constant confusion. I never got to witness the decades she raised her five children and cult-leader husband, how she supported them all through her skill and will, long before my sisters and I added to her cadre of burdens.
But then, there is also the memory of watching her separate persimmons and cook them into puddings and breads and cakes, and I hang onto this as an oar that guides me to compose the image of a matriarch who raised five children and several of her grandchildren without the income of a man.
And so I separate persimmon pulp, contrary to all logic, thinking I will summons either her energy, or her ghost. With open palms, I humbly and gratefully accept whatever wisdom she can impart.