Lisa Lenzo: Words and Wild Grapes


In order to have time to write, I used to divide my life into pieces: in the mornings, I sat at my desk; in the afternoons, I went off to my job; in the evenings, I did everything else. There never seemed to be enough time for all I needed or wanted to do, and yet one autumn, I found myself adding one more thing to my already full evenings: making wild grape jelly.

On my daily walks with my husband–which we squeezed in after I got up from my writing desk and before I rushed off to work–I kept noticing wild grape vines, with their bunches of purple grapes, hanging from trees growing along the roadside. An especially fruitful mass of tangled vines hung above our road at its highest corner. The lowest clusters were almost in reach; by climbing a ladder, I could capture enough to make into jelly. But I hadn’t cleared off my desktop in months, I wanted to send out more stories before my second book came out in the spring, and I liked to have a big pot of soup in the fridge to reheat by the bowlful. In short, there were other, more fruitful ways in which I could spend my evenings.

Still, I kept thinking about those grapes, hanging just out of my reach. So, one September evening after I arrived home from work, I parked our van at the edge of the steep ditch near the grapes and hoisted myself onto its roof. I should be home making soup, I thought; I should be looking up writing markets. Instead, I stood on the van’s top and started clipping the dark bunches. I was reaching up and also sideways, so that if the van rolled, taking me with it, I would be crushed like a grape. However, I felt happy–in fact, gleeful. With my left hand, I reached, grasped, and pulled; with my right hand, I clipped a good amount of vines and their grapes.

Is my attraction to wild grapes the thrill of getting something for nothing? Does it hearken back to my hunting and gathering ancestors, roots shared by every one of us alive today? Probably. But my attraction is also more personal. I remember watching my mother picking gooseberries and currants when I was a child and realizing something about her that I couldn’t then put into words: she had a life of her own, she existed at times in a realm that didn’t include me and my brothers. When she knelt to pick from her berry bushes, her back was to us. She focused on the berries as she picked, or perhaps on something else, some daydream or memory–at any rate, not on us kids. As an adult, I do the same while sitting at my desk–I stare and remember and dream–but rather than berries, I pick and choose and gather words. And although we later share the fruits of our labors, my mom and I first gather berries and words for ourselves.

Back at home, my husband helped me twist the dark purple bunches off the tangles of ropey vine. Then I mashed and cooked the grapes till they were wet and soupy, poured the thin juice through two layers of cheesecloth, and hung the bag up to drip. The following evening, I added sugar to the strained, dark liquid and stirred and simmered for over an hour, until it began to jell. Finally, I tried it, still warm. It was sweet and tart, full of wild grape flavor. The store-bought variety tasted like water compared to this strong, wild stuff.

*

The following day, my husband called me at work and said he had a surprise for me.

“The lot sold,” I guessed. We’d been trying to sell the same lot for several years.

“Not that big of a surprise.” He told me he’d show me later.

As soon as I got home, we started out toward the garden to bring in our few remaining tomatoes. It was a chilly evening, and the weather report called for scattered frost. On the path to the garden, as we skirted a stand of tall trees, my husband said it was time to show me the surprise. “Stop right there,” he said. I stopped on the path. “Close your eyes.” I closed them. “Now look up.”

I tipped back my head and looked up at the sky. Cascading down from it, gripping the edges of the nearest tree branches, were masses of wild grape vines studded with dozens of plump clusters. “Look at how many there are!” I cried. They were ten feet above me, but with the aid of our ladder, within my reach. Hundreds of wild grapes, directly above the path I’d walked all spring and summer. Plump little grapes packed with juice, sugar, and symbolism, although the most obvious symbolism–what you are looking for is right under, or, in this case, right above your nose–isn’t necessarily the symbolism I want for this essay.

Many years ago, when I was an MFA student, I presented a story in my writing class thinking that the symbolism in it was perfectly clear. No one in the class got it, though, so I explained what I meant. My teacher laughed and said, “Lisa, you think you are knock-knock-knock-ing at a door, but really you are doing this”–she held up her hand with her fingers curved; then she moved her fingers and whispered, “scratch-scratch-scratch.” The following semester, still struggling with symbolism, I asked my other writing teacher how I should go about putting it into a story. He told me that you didn’t have to put symbolism in a story. Symbolism shows up naturally in stories, he said, as it does in life, although sometimes you have to help to uncover it. He told me not to worry about it or try too hard, that it would come to me in time.

The day after my husband showed me the grapes growing in our yard, a good friend, who is also one of my first readers, brought me three half-bushels of apples from her backyard trees. Apples are full of natural pectin, which makes them perfect for combining with other fruits to thicken jelly faster and more effectively. So, inevitably, it now seems, I made more wild grape jelly.

*

I’d finished processing my third batch of grape jelly when, on our daily walks, I noticed a dead standing tree so densely covered with wild grapes that it appeared to be wearing a long purple vest. Some of these grapes were at eye level, but the tree they covered rose from an especially deep and brambly ditch. The grapes were too high from the ditch bottom to climb to with our ladder; they were too far from the road to reach with my arm outstretched. I would stretch my hand toward them anyway as I walked by, wishing my arm were ten feet longer, or that I could fly. My husband smilingly offered to stand on one end of a plank so that I could walk out on the other. I frowned at him and dropped my arm. But every few days I would look over at the unattainable grape mother lode and lament. Weeks passed, and I stopped looking and longing. We’d had several frosts. Autumn was waning. Harvest season was over.

Then one night in November, our area was struck by a violent windstorm. The following day, we saw that the dead tree was down. Its trunk, still thickly draped and beaded with purple grapes, lay on the road’s shoulder. I leaned down to inspect them. “These grapes still look good,” I said. A few were shriveled, but most were round and plump. I picked one and rolled it between my fingers: it was firm. I placed it on my tongue and pressed the skin so that it burst. Wild grape flavor flooded my mouth. “Still sweet,” I said. “Wow. Sweeter than ever.” I straightened up, and we continued our walk. It was too late; it was November; I was done with grape jelly. But on our way home, we paused again by the wind-felled tree covered with frost-sweetened grapes. “I have fifteen minutes until I have to leave for work,” I said.

“Do you want to?” my husband asked.

“I think so,” I said.

We hurried back to the house for buckets and clippers, and returned to the tree in separate vehicles so that I could later dash off to work. Then, squatting on the road, we clipped ten pounds of grapes, harvesting them as effortlessly as if they were strawberries.

*

It wasn’t only wild grapes that called to me that autumn. I also made pear jam from a lone tree dating back to when our land was an orchard. I made gooseberry and blackberry jam from our thickly laden bushes. I made quince preserves from a box of fruit my brother sent, and from the half-wild trees of one of my writer friends. Often when I talked on the phone, I used the speaker option, which left my hands free to strip the grapes from their stems, peel and chop pears and quince, and stir the simmering fruit. Once, I told my dad I needed to hang up because the jelly needed my attention, and he said, “Think of me while you are making jelly and put a kiss from me inside it.” My father was then terminally ill. His loving words have outlasted him, as did some of those jars with the memory of his kiss sealed inside them.

Making jelly and writing stories are attempts to preserve time, to stop it and hold it and taste it. But jelly, at least for me, is ready much more quickly. I always have something to show for my work at the end of an evening: after each session, four to twenty sealed jars shine on the counter. I’ve only had to revise a few batches of jam that failed to thicken, and I got it right on the second try. How often have I said that about a story? Not once. I might spend a year or even a dozen years on a story; I might declare it “finished” before it’s even close. Jelly either jells, or it doesn’t. And while I’ve occasionally produced a few polished pages with little effort, for the most part I rewrite my paragraphs fifteen or fifty times.

When I was her student, one of my grad school mentors noticed that I worked hard yet didn’t produce a lot of finished pages, and she told me that we were alike in that respect. “We work slowly,” she said. “No matter what we do, neither of us is going to produce a huge amount of work. But I’d rather have one Madame Bovary by Flaubert than twenty books by Zola.”

Zola wrote over forty books in his lifetime. I’ve published less than a tenth of that so far. But in the past few years, I’ve made many hundreds of jars of jam and jelly, so many that I’ve lost count. I wouldn’t call my preserves works of art, but they are definitely things of beauty: intense purple grape jelly that shines nearly black; pear jam that starts out pale amber and gradually, mysteriously, turns a rich, rosy red; quince preserves, studded with bits of fruit like puzzle pieces, which glow a fiery orange. These vibrant jars of fruit will not last for posterity, but, if unopened, they will keep a year or two. They are a pleasure to look at, smell, taste, touch, and even to hear–that percussive click-click-click as the lids of the hot jars cool and seal. I’ve given jars of jam and jelly to my mentors, to my former agent, to my publicist, and to the staff at the press who brought my second book into print. I’ve given jars to my writer friends who have helped me with my stories, and to other friends who have helped me less directly. I’ve given jelly and jam to my family, to my neighbors and co-workers, and also to my postman, who, besides delivering bills and junk mail, brings me magazines and books. When I hand or mail these jars of sweetened and simmered fruit to the various people in my life, their response is almost invariably pleased. And while I’m sure a few jars get pushed to the backs of cupboards and refrigerators and remain uneaten, I’ve rarely had a jar refused, and never returned with a note saying, “We’re sorry, but this does not meet our current needs.”

*

Five years have passed since I first began gathering wild grapes and these words. Since then, I’ve retired from my job, and while my desk is still messy, I’ve written the rough draft of a novel and finished my third story collection, which is coming out this May. I’ve also started a small orchard–pear, plum, apple, and peach, plus two quince trees I planted in memory of my father, sprinkling his ashes amongst their roots.

Mysterious yet tangible, sustaining yet sweet, worse can be said about a life than that it is filled with words and fruit. And it gratifies me that much of this bounty can be preserved. Sometimes I’ve had to simmer it for less than an hour, and at other times, it’s taken more than a decade to jell. I’ve had to stretch to grasp and claim it, as well as hope and dream and wait. But always, sooner or later, there’s been more to harvest, within my reach.


Lisa Lenzo‘s latest story collection, Unblinking, will be published by Wayne State University Press in May 2019. Her first story collection, Within the Lighted City, (University of Iowa Press) was chosen by Ann Beattie for the 1997 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Her novel-in-stories, Strange Love (Wayne State University Press), was a 2015 Michigan Notable Book Award winner. Lenzo’s other honors include a Hemingway Days Festival Award, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award, and First Place for Fiction in the 2017 Literature & Medicine Writing Contest. Her stories and essays have appeared in Arts & Letters, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sacred Ground: Stories About Home, Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes, and on NPR. Lenzo grew up in Detroit and is a graduate of the MFA writing program at Western Michigan University. She lives with her husband near Saugatuck, Michigan.

Pre-order Unblinking from the publisher before May 6 and get 20% off: https://www.wsupress.wayne.edu/books/detail/unblinking

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