I don’t know how she knew. She just did, though no vines grew in our yard or anywhere near us. My Aunt Christina would be dispatched from next door as my mother gathered shopping bags and newspapers, and the telephone would be dialed to Another One Yia Yia’s house.
The next day my great-aunt would arrive early, chattering over a cup of coffee and something sweet until we would see my aunt pulling her black and white Plymouth out of the garage. It looked like a squad car to me. My mother, sister, grandmother, great-aunt and I would all pile in with Aunt Christian and off we would go in search of the wild grape leaves that grew in the forest preserve.
Grape leaves are used in a delectable dish called Dolmathes. Leaves are wrapped around a tasty meat and rice filling, much like stuffed cabbage rolls, and topped with a tangy, frothy lemon sauce. It is a favored dish in many Greek homes and the house specialty in Greek and other ethnic restaurants. Today, the leaves can be purchased in any Mediterranean specialty store and in many supermarkets, preserved in jars or cans. In my youth, however, there was only one way to get these leaves, and that involved a yearly trek into the green, green woods early in the summer.
The car would wend its way up Thatcher Avenue, slowly, purposefully, looking for the parking entrance to the forest preserve. My aunt would park the car near a picnic grove and we would slowly emerge, two older, diminutive ladies, sweaters on, even in the emerging heat, scarves on their heads, shopping bags over their wrists, my mother and aunt, my sister and me, a plump testament to the good food served at our kitchen table. Folks would be setting up for a picnic lunch, young lads playing softball, maybe a Girl Scout troop working on badges . . . and us. Spring explorers from another land in search of the perfect vine.
The woods were close to the local high school. The one I would someday attend. I would secretly send up a prayer for anonymity, hoping no one would recognize me, or worse. Then, as now, it is illegal to pick from forest preserves and I knew I would be mortified if we were spotted by police. Scandal, jail, reform school for my sister and I, headlines in the Maywood Herald. My active imagination held no rest. How to explain this?
Off we would trudge, down a path, as conspicuous as we tried not to be, until the chattering would start anew as vines were found.
Yia Yia would show us what to pick. Only the tender, young leaves were plucked and she would show us how; quickly, with a flick of the fingers, so that the vines weren’t damaged and the leaf remained whole. We were doing our own pruning. Long before ecology became a common word on most lips, my immigrant grandmother knew to take only what was needed and to do it with care. If we were caught pulling other leaves or taking anything else, we were given a stern tongue lashing not soon forgotten.
We would pick and bag, pick and bag, until our fingers were stained green and our skin itched from twigs and bugs. By then, our criminal activity no longer matter, for I felt a part of an ancient ritual of women gathering food in the woods, tending to their clan, and I felt a part of a larger circle of survival.
We would gather up our shopping bags, their strong, twisted handles holding them up, as we headed back to the car. Yia Yia and Another One Yia Yia would twitter away like the birds in the trees, who were twittering as well, happy to reclaim their forest, cheering our departure. I would settle down and listen to the euphonious sounds of elderly voices mixed in with my mother’s and aunt’s English sounding tongue, several languages floating out the car windows as we headed on home.
Hot, sweaty and thirsty, there was still much work to do once we got home. A glass of water and a little treat would hold us over and new work began in earnest to preserve our day’s bounty for the long winter days ahead, when snow covered the ground and the green, green woods were but a sweet scented memore.
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