While I was growing up, cherries were bright red like a clown nose and either drowned in the bottom of a tumbler glass full of one of my grandfather’s drinks or topping the rare banana split or sundae from Friendly’s. Fresh cherries weren’t in existence. It was maraschino or bust.
We were in Rome when my Dad realized he forgot his pills for his gout. We were in Taormina by the time it hit him, and he started to hobble down the narrow alleys near the sea. Cherries. Someone said. Maybe we looked it up on a computer we found somewhere in one of the hotels. Maybe it was one of our guides, maybe we even went to a pharmacy. I don’t remember, but I remember the fruit stand on the corner. I remember being able to smell the little baskets overflowing with fresh strawberries, and a whole crate of deep red cherries – the first I’d seen outside of the jarred ones from home. We got a bag, miming out the right portion, and my dad walked around with it, spitting the pits into his hand, then throwing them in the trash cans as we went. He said they helped. All I knew is that they’d burst in your mouth and the taste matched their color. .Deep, strong flavor, sweet with a bite, it’d flood our tongue in an instant, the pit rolling between your teeth, and just when it started to face, you could grab another from the pile, a seemingly endless supply.
Days later, we were in Palermo with another bag. A little girl wandered the crowd outside the church we were waiting to visit. Inside the mosaics glittered on the ceiling, and just as we started to walk through the doors, the organ lurched to life and rattled the windows with the music as a bride with a veil as long as the train on her beautiful beaded dress passed by us and up the aisle. But outside, before the bride, the little girl held out her hand to all of us, asking for money, mumbling in what must have been Italian, holding up her hands and her eyes from under her messy bangs. We were tourists, of course. We looked it. She walked up to my father for a second time. He placed a few cherries in her hand. She looked from the little red globes to his face and back again, shrugged, and walked away, popping one in her mouth.
After that trip, we found fresh cherries at home. I’d pit them and mix them with vanilla ice cream in the summer. Now, it’s cherry season in Italy, and farmers pull into the outskirts of the city with their truckbeds full of crates bursting with cherries. They sell them in the markets, on the side of the road. In gardens, they hang heavy from the trees. As I write this I continuously reach into the bag beside me, eating the last ones of our most recently purchased batch from down the road. No more maraschino and I honestly don’t really miss them – the real thing is so much better, and apparently, they can even cure gout.