The Prune Thief

March 14, 2014

“One day,” Alice said, “Mama sent me over to Mrs. Altman’s to borrow something. Mrs. Altman wasn’t there, but there was something cooking on the stove.”

Without the ability to work with a computer, see the television set clearly, read, or listen to audiobooks, and a deep conviction that it’s too late for her to learn Braille, Alice now spends more time in her distant past. She reports to me on what she finds there. Today when I arrived for a visit, she couldn’t wait to tell me about what was cooking on Mrs. Altman’s stove.

Mr. and Mrs. Altman owned the dairy referred to in an earlier post. Since there was only the occasional doctor in the vicinity (Martha delivered one of her children alone), Mrs. Altman served as the town’s midwife. “She delivered me, Lew, and Puddle,” Alice said. Puddle was the family nickname for Pearl, Alice’s little sister and the youngest of Martha’s six daughters.

All these years she has called Pearl by her real name, never mentioning a nickname, but recently the name Puddle comes up more and more frequently.

Little Alice, around five years old, dutifully left Martha’s side on a summer day to run the errand to the Altman’s, but when she stood at the kitchen screen door knocking as loud as she could, no one answered. She pressed her face up against the screen and spotted a big pot on the stove with a steady steam rising from it, but she couldn’t tell what it was.

In her own house, food was precious: seven children, a father who worked intermittently, and a mother taxed to her limits with child care, laundry (by hand in a tub), cleaning the house, and looking after and milking the cow, Nebba, who was her good friend and wandered in the back yard.

Alice reminded me that a typical meal at home might consist of one can of peas. “Mama would open a can, pour it into a kettle, add a quart of milk, heat it a little, then ladle out the peas and milk making sure each of us got the same amount. That was our dinner.”

One can of peas, seven children.

Every day, she said, she would come home from school hungry, put lard and sugar on a slice of Martha’s home-made bread, and sit out on the back step to eat it. “That was so good!”

At the back door of the Altman house on that long-ago summer day, she sniffed the sweet, steamy air from the kitchen. Something good was on that stove. She looked behind her and all around. There was no one to see if she sneaked inside or not.

As quietly as she could, she opened the screen door and stepped into the warm kitchen. The wood cooking stove and its supply of sticks and dried twigs took up a full wall.

Alice tiptoed to the table, pulled out a chair, and placed it as silently as possible next to the stove. When she climbed up on the chair, she looked down into a pot of glistening, simmering prunes.prunes5

Before she could stop herself she’d grabbed a spoon, pulled one of the purple jewels out of the water, blew on it, and popped it into her mouth.

“I’ve never, ever done anything like that again,” she said.

Was she caught, I wondered?

“No! Oh no!” she said in a low voice, as if someone from that little prairie town might be listening, even now. “I ate it and ran home as fast as I could. I’ve never forgotten it.”

She had never told a soul about this theft, she said, but now it didn’t seem so bad after all. She’d been hungry. Had Mrs. Altman been there, she would have probably offered Alice a prune. She might have been cooking them for one of the babies she’d delivered, a common home cure for babies who needed prunes to keep things moving.

“I never did anything like that again, no matter how hungry I was,” Alice said again. “Not ever.”

Do our memories serve us by bringing up a ninety-three year old prune not one’s own? A prune that left such a long aftertaste of naughtiness?

I think so because she enjoyed remembering that prune, loved telling me the story about it, and best of all she has compassion for the hungry little girl who took it. With so few physical resources at hand, forgiving yourself for trespasses can’t be the worst way to spend your time.

Although I am still looking for an answer to what she can do in addition to sitting and thinking, I haven’t come up with much that works. Solitaire is now her chief entertainment. Thanks to some suggestions from you all, I’m now looking for some good clay and also plan to set up a way for her to arrange flowers, something she loves to do, if I can pry her out of that La-Z-Boy and over to the table.

That chair is so comfortable. Not long ago she said she thinks she is now the same shape as her La-Z-Boy and, while that’s not quite true, it could be true soon. Her feet don’t work well in shoes any more, so it’s hard for her to walk. Even on these nice days she’s been staying inside.

And oh, I could go on, but think back to the prune. The prune!

When I was ten, my best friend Mona and I used to climb into a barn across the street from her house on the edge of my own small prairie town. The building wasn’t used as a barn any longer but as storage. The doors were padlocked so we’d push and pull each other through a window at the back. Inside we found racks and racks of clothes from the 1920s, boxes of very old books, trunks of pelts (Mr. Haller, the man who owned the barn, had been a fur trader), bills and personal letters dated back to the beginning of the century, and lots of large and dusty Victorian-era furniture. We never took anything, but we felt bold and adventurous being somewhere we were not supposed to be. We especially loved the loft where we could sit and look out over the whole neighborhood.

All was peaceful until Mr. Haller would come rushing from his enormous yellow house, stand in the yard, put his hands on his hips and shout, “I hear you kids in there! Go on home!” At that command, we toppled out the loft window and down over the sloping roof at the back and ran home, like Alice, as fast as we could.

What were your childhood crimes and misdemeanors?

17 Responses to “The Prune Thief”

  1. Eileen Moore Says:

    Summer time in Vancouver BC. I was ten and had a hankering for the fully ripe, luscious, red cherries growing in a neighbor’s yard. My friend Cookie and I snuck into the yard at dusk, filled a sack and ran home to my fort to consume. Stolen cherries are much tastier than those purchased in a store.


    • Such vivid images, and wow, a fort! Lucky you and lucky Cookie. Why is it that stolen fruit tastes better to kids? Maybe adult thieves feel the same way, but fortunately we (here) have all grown past the need to sneak into neighbors’ yards at dusk and find out. Haven’t we?


  2. diane Says:

    Coming home from school, I filled up on a neighbor’s concord grapes. I suffered some consequences in the bathroom later later that day. Worse than getting caught.


    • Oh, woe is you! But concord grapes may be worth just about anything. Mr. Haller had those, too, but he always shooed us off before we got enough in our mouths to either satisfy or make us sick.


  3. bjn Says:

    In the yard across from my Southern California elementary school was a worn out and neglected apple tree. At home, we had a pomegranate bush, guava, kumquat, nectarine, and every variety of plum and peach. (Gophers kept killing dad’s avocados.) But during recess, I’d be up in that tree with my friends, gleefully stealing the small, gnarled, tasteless prizes.


    • With that abundance available in a back yard, it’s a wonder anyone would ever leave Southern California.
      Your story says so much about the temptations of the forbidden. Of course there’s an apple tree in Genesis. We can all relate.


  4. With so few physical resources at hand, forgiving yourself for trespasses can’t be the worst way to spend your time….words of healing and hope at all ages


  5. My little sister and I would roam around our neighborhood on our bicycles, often trespassing at the old Map House. It was a dark, gothic place that seemed exactly like where Jane Eyre might have lived.


  6. Amazing to witness how these stories keep emerging from the recesses of Alice’s memory – and how important you are, Andrea, as the listener who validates those memories.


  7. Cheryl Says:

    Stealing M&M’s from the large bag my mom kept hidden in the cupboard. Once I got caught and was made to spit them out in the sink which was so sad.


  8. alancahn Says:

    Memories- sweet friends or uninvited guests, or simply neurons firing, waiting to be named?


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