Sifting under strawberry vines each week, I lift their long, leafy tendrils with god knows what on the end. Various shapes, colors, and stages of rottenness, or not. I’d planted new varieties in with the old, and two huge, crimson red, ripe berries appeared among the tiny ones. I hoped for more.
Returning a third week, some had ripened, but in each group, one to four spongy, gnarly-looking specimens would find their way to a flight outside the square enclosure to the ground where the dogs would pick them off.
Pausing, I turned my block to see two small, oval, wet, gray—slugs! I plucked them off their sliming trails and hurled them out. Sifting through the bunches, I stepped on the cement foursquare path, and plucked, placing perfect berries in a plastic bowl. I pushed the flimsy gate, then secured the hook in its tiny hole. I hoped a rinse of water would perk them up. This is my first actual strawberry garden. I was proud that this crop brought enough to make two small strawberry rhubarb cakes.
One I would bake for my daughter’s 22nd birthday today. One for our house. We joke about being in Covid Times. She is quarantined at her father’s condo, where she was when her symptoms started a few weeks ago. Her strawberry rhubarb cake I’ll set outside, on the porch, at my ex-husband’s. The place he shares with his girlfriend.
I asked my daughter, “With or without powdered sugar?”
“You should put it on. I don’t think Dad has any.” I did.
“It looks beautiful,” she texted, but I fretted whether it was done or not. I made an elaborate macaroni salad just in case and brought that, too.
My daughter’s Covid symptoms are getting better and worse as time goes on, so we don’t know when she will get well. We just wait to make sure she won’t get worse. Her taste and smell left her two days ago. Four days ago, her chest hurt and she was using the inhaler.
The strawberries, likewise, we have to keep looking at, checking each day to see if they are fine or not. Treating their symptoms. Too wet causes sponginess, usually by Chickweed, a few inches high but vigorous with an extensive root system. It’s almost like it throws blankets over plants and centers on the desired plant’s roots. Not unlike Covid and its ability to take over the lungs. Even its virus looks a bit like a berry close up. Unlike Chickweed, there’s nothing to even try to kill Covid quite yet that we know of.
My fourth-year garden with my now-husband is more fruitful than last year’s. The marriage still seems new to me, but fruitful as well. The strawberries are getting bigger, and I’m practicing to use the word “we” again.
I knew that in past years, this husband had gone out only a few times a summer to get a small bowl of strawberries, and, even so, forgotten about them in the refrigerator. They’d gotten used to his ways. But I feel the drive to make them flourish.
The cake will be made only of freshly-picked strawberries and rhubarb, representing the hope of the season—for my daughter to get well instead of better-then-worse and better-then-worse, as she has been.
I wonder, not quite randomly, if the errant tomato that had landed itself in the middle of my strawberry bed, off from its four nearby plants, had had a bird pick it up and carry it, but the vine snapped. What shall I do with it? It’s too small for fried green tomatoes.
That was always my daughter and my favorite movie to watch together: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café. I ran out and bought Fannie Flagg’s book, so satisfied We even ate them on occasion, the movie where Idgie Threadgood, Ruth, and Sipsey were strong enough to seem weak in order to save themselves and others. Then there was “Towanda! Righter of Wrongs, Queen Beyond Compare!” And barbecue. We’d say, “Secret’s in the sauce” like Sipsey.
I texted my daughter that I’d bring her cake this evening for after dinner. She’s been sleeping today. No response. Still sleeping, I suppose. The tomatoes are all pale green. The strawberries are green, half and half, or red. And when very all red, seem too ripe, but they’re so sweet. I have to decide the margin between keeping and throwing away. I never liked deciding those things. I always let others decide for me. But this year feels different. Not with the gumption of a Towanda, but somewhere in between.
This year, I know that I often forget God, this nebulous being who runs our lives. I forget to pray to said God, but this year I bow my head in prayer or hope or both to some magical god who can take us out of this and heal my daughter, grow strawberries, perfect life and defy death. I ask him to do so with my daughter as I text her every couple hours to see if she’s okay. I know she will be because she’s young and strong, and those aren’t the ones who die, right?
It’s late, July 27th, and I’m messaging her on the computer in the dark of night, telling her, as I try never to do, that I’m worried. Her last message was eight hours ago. I take my bedtime meds, listen to my snoring husband and dogs, and I try to wait until morning. I download the PDF of Fried Green Tomatoes, but reading about Buddy dying and Idgie mourning him, “You know a heart can be broken, but it keeps on beating, just the same.” Well, it didn’t help much.
She texts me at 1:40 a.m. I’m still up.
“Getting retested tomorrow.”
I ask her symptoms: tired, stuffy nose.
I said, “I hope your stuffy nose is all in your head.” She laughs. And now I can sleep.
Cynthia Lee Steele, a poet and nonfiction writer and photographer, is assistant editor for Cirque: A Literary Journal, where she recently served as guest editor. She reads her poetry and nonfiction and the work of others for Poetry Parlay. She’s graced a decade of audiences reading plays for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference.