New leaves on clusters of roadside bushes tell me each spring that plums will soon appear. I know to check them often as plums quickly reach the perfect stage. They are best before fully ripened into solid reds. Their flavor is delightfully pungent when the light green fruit has partially transitioned to pale shades of pink and yellow.
During my childhood, my father and I always looked forward to plum season. There were several groups of volunteer orchards scattered around our farming community. The overlapping bushes were tightly bunched between dirt road ditches and fields of cotton, peanuts, or corn.
Daddy kept a saltshaker on the dash of his pickup truck when plum season came. We’d make a couple of intentional trips to bushes we’d been to before. At other times we’d just stop wherever we happened to notice plums by the road.
We’d shake salt into one hand, pick plums with the other, and eat until we were too full to hold any more. Daddy called it having a “bate of plums.” Bate may have been a colloquialism or perhaps a Dooly County word. I haven’t heard it in a long time and I’m not sure if anyone besides Daddy ever used it. A bate of plums meant that you ate all you wanted then had a few more for good measure.
Occasionally we picked a small paper bag of plums for later, but mostly we enjoyed them fresh off the bushes. We froze a bag of plums once, but when we later thawed them, they were mushy. Some things are meant to be saved, while others should be savored in the moment.
Sometimes we’d be disappointed to learn we had stopped at hog plum bushes. I don’t know if that’s the real name, but it’s what we called the slightly smaller plums that were rather bitter. I guess they were only fit for hogs and probably weren’t their first choice. They looked inviting through the open windows of Daddy’s truck, but a close-up view could show us what distance had hidden.
Our favorite wild plums were near Johnny Lane’s home. Mr. Johnny was an elderly black man who lived alone in an ancient unpainted frame house with an open well. He was a small framed man with a slightly stooped body and a perpetual smile. His home had electricity, but he hardly needed a meter. Low watt light bulbs dangled on single cords in three sparsely furnished rooms.
I don’t know what Johnny Lane did for a living. He was well past retirement age when I was a young child. Farm work would be my guess because he lived in the country.
Mr. Johnny would occasionally join us at the plum bushes. At other times we’d visit on his front porch. And once we went inside and stayed for a while. Daddy asked him politely if he minded showing me his home, already knowing we would be welcome.
Daddy sometimes did things without explaining why. I guess he knew that somewhere down the road it would mean more to me when I figured it out. I think that’s why we spent time one day seated on wooden straight chairs in Johnny Lane’s sparsely furnished home.
Mr. Johnny didn’t have much in the way of material goods. I don’t remember ever seeing a vehicle in his yard, and the shotgun house he lived in was more weathered than he was. But the bare wood floors were as clean as a whistle. And Mr. Johnny was, as always, a gracious host.
I can’t recall anything Mr. Johnny ever said to me, and I don’t know that it matters. His life was unremarkable by many standards. There aren’t many people left who remember him or have much reason to. But when I travel the dirt road by the place where he lived, I’m warmly reminded of a man with a gentle spirit, a kind-hearted soul who had almost nothing yet seemed content with what he had.
Johnny Lane died years ago. His house is long gone and there’s not a plum bush on the place. I doubt there’s a photograph of him on anyone’s mantle, but it’s easy to picture him standing on his front porch smiling as we ate a bate of plums.
It may seem odd and perhaps it is, but I love recalling those times of having plums with Daddy at Johnny Lane’s. And I’m thankful for that day we went inside. Lessons don’t always need explanations.