By Karen Pierce Gonzalez
I have been making platters of sweet candied fruit for years now. I take them to the children after school. They must spend all day in class learning how to read and write and I know they love the quince and the jellied orange peel. They always empty the trays I bring; their little hands eagerly reaching out for all they can hold.
It has been this way for a very long time and I am glad to see the children happy. I especially like watching little Asher’s round, smooth face. He has his mother’s deep-set black eyes and his father’s thick-lipped grin. This young boy is proof that my rose jam is perhaps the sweetest. It is what brought his mother out of her shell and into the arms of his father who only dreamed from a distance about making her his wife. It wasn’t until after they tasted the jam that they discovered their happiness together. Although it took some time for her to be able to return his gaze, it took less time for her to say yes. But I did not start out making the fruit for them. I first made it for a man whose love I fed.
My hair was still chocolate brown then. I wear it now woven into a bun beneath a scarf. My eyes were bright with hope. Today they squint against the day’s brightness and can see best only what is right in front of them. Ah, but if I close my eyes and think only of those days, I can remember the sun’s warmth on my face and how I would wait for him to appear. My skin tingled and my palms grew moist with anticipation.
I saved a few fruit pieces just for him. Closing his eyes, he would taste them, one at a time. Each time, telling me how delicious it was. My lips grew moist just watching him.
“There is no one in all of Turkey like you, Isalene,” he’d murmur, “no one.”
But that was long ago and since then he has left this place for another. Why think of it now? The hot Mediterranean sun overhead quickly dries my palms and I can barely make out the schoolhouse before me. Hadn’t it been on a day such as this that he told me goodbye? That day my heart broke into many small pieces. Sometimes, I can feel the scars. They are what I have left.
“I have good news,” he began, the words moving quickly.
“What is it, Raphael?” The children were already gone and I brought out what I saved for him.
A stout man whose high cheekbones rose above his beard, he took the tray and motioned for us to stand in the shade of nearby trees. Curious, I followed him.
“Isalene, you really are a help,” he said. “The children are so much more willing to practice spelling new words now with the promise of your quince and orange treats when they are done.”
Was he praising me because he suddenly saw what I was doing? Had my rose petal jam found love in his heart for me? As he spoke, a flush washed over me. I was sure my face was red, so I looked away just as I am doing right now. What right had I to think that he would be interested in me? I was plain and did not have a dowry. There were many others he could choose from. And yet, because of the jam, I hoped.
I first made the trays of fruit as a reason to see him almost every day and that was what I wanted more than anything else. He was older than I, much older, but I didn’t care. To me he was more handsome than any of the young men in our village. When he first arrived, already a widower whose wife died before she could give him children, he barely spoke to me. Not that I didn’t try to get his attention. It just wasn’t easy because women of my age did not talk to men their families did not approve of. Without family, I could not gain anyone’s permission to speak to him. For me there was only an orchard of skinny trees that was long neglected. It was in tending those trees and making something of the fallen, ripened fruit that I found a way to reach him.
“For the children,” I explained at the start, hoping he couldn’t hear how fast my heart was beating. He grinned, and, as time went on, our visits grew longer. Often he’d engage me in debate about what lesson plans children should be taught in school. Then we would talk about the students and how, as a child, he’d been slow to learn.
“If only I’d known someone like you,” he winked at me and laughed. Those days seemed easy and full of promise. I believed back then that it was only a matter of time. Through the eyes of memory I remember our standing that day beneath the trees that lined the schoolyard. My pulse raced as I waited to hear his news.
“I am leaving ....” he paused to nibble on a bit of quince.
“Leaving? Is it your family?” I took a step forward. He went to visit them in the fall. That’s when I gave him the rose petal jam, believing it would remind him of me. At the time, I did not tell him that it was sweet enough to soften even the hardest of hearts.
“Yes, in a way it is family, Isalene.” At that Raphael brought his gaze directly to me. He cleared his throat. “I am getting married.”
Without thinking, I reached out for the tray and grabbed it back, holding it before me like a shield. But it did no good. I could not ward off his words. And I could not hide the cracks that began to appear in my heart.
“Isalene, are you all right? You’ve suddenly gone pale.”
I couldn’t even move. What happened? My mind moved swiftly over the possibilities. Had he shared the jam with someone else? Perhaps the rose petals I picked in the morning soured.
“Isalene, can you hear me?” Raphael reached out for my hand but I would not let him touch me. He stumbled over his own words. “I… I have said nothing until I was sure. She … she makes me very happy.”
Then he dropped his voice to a whisper, “Oh, Isalene, I am sorry, I… I had no idea,” he asked me to look at him. I only shook my head. He started to speak again but then said nothing; the weight of his silence touching the tray between us.
At times I must blink to drive away the moisture that appears in my eyes. It is a sign, I am told, of growing old. In the opening and closing of my eyelids, I sometimes forget what I was thinking. And, standing here, waiting for the children to finish their lessons, this can be good. Back then I thought I would never forget the way my throat closed, not letting a sound escape. His efforts to comfort me were lost, too. Hearing him say that I and my fruits would be greatly missed did not touch me with tenderness. They could not erase the pain of my tightened face.
Sometimes, like today, I remember more than I want to. I can see again the way the sun ran its warm fingers through his dark hair as he bent down to pick up the fruit that fell from the tray.
Much time has passed since then and now there are wrinkles where once the skin was supple with youth. When I look down at the faces that smile up at me I wonder who among them will blossom in love? Who will miss the beating of their own hearts? Searching their bright, shiny eyes, I tell myself not to forget how tender the heart can be.
Rose Petal Jam
2 cups of rose petals (deep red and very fragrant)
2 cups water
2 ¼ cups honey
Juice of a lemon
Wash and drain freshly picked rose petals. Cut in ¼-inch strips, removing the base of each petal. Gently cook in water approximately 10-15 minutes until tender. Strain the liquid and put the petals to the side for later use. With the liquid make a syrup by mixing 1 cup of rose petal liquid with honey.
Cook to a soft-ball stage. Add drained petals and cook over low heat about 15 minutes longer. Pour into sterile jars and seal with wax. Do not store in direct sunlight.