Watermelon offers sweet memories

July 31, 2002|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

An unopened watermelon makes a great musical instrument: thunkachunkathunkachunkathunk. And provides instant competition: Who can capture the greased watermelon tossed into the deep end of the pool?

Slice it open, you've got a party. It's proof that summer food is as much about companionship as taste. Like steamed crabs and corn-on-the-cob, watermelon is the stuff of fellowship. It tastes best outdoors, on the back porch or in the back yard, served in huge, dripping quantities. With its seeds.

Watermelon will never replace the bowl of cereal or box of candy as solitary comfort; God didn't intend the great fruit for those who read or brood while eating. Happily, this great summer food remains uncomplicated: no preparation necessary.

For me, watermelon is also a food that remains sweet with other years and absent faces. It helps me both escape from and escape to. It's great food for thirsty folk: It makes the right connections.

My associations usually patch together old family gatherings and Fourth of July celebrations. But there is one watermelon memory that has become more important over time. It unfolds like this:

It is an evening in early summer: Dark except for stars and lights near the fairgrounds, silent except for occasional whinnies from trailers and cursing from card games.

My father and I are in a field that doubles as parking lot and campground for horse people who have come to Camden, N.J., to show their animals at a three-day event. There are jumpers and hunters, all sorts of impressive horses and ambitious owners. We have brought our Arabian horse, a 3-year-old champion named Myrrha after a princess who was turned into a myrrh tree by a Greek goddess.

The long grass, rutted by the wheels of our ancient van, is cool and wet. My mother has settled in for the night on a cot beside our Arabian princess. Dad and I have unzipped Army surplus sleeping bags to form a giant square with the plaid lining facing up. Old scratchy horse blankets serve as our covers.

I am 8 years old. My sneakers are soggy from dew, my braids frizzier than ever. I am wearing shorts, a shell top and one of my dad's sweaters. I can see the Big Dipper with the help of my first pair of eyeglasses. And I am, finally, going to sleep outside, all night, in my clothes.

Also, Dad has promised to buy us watermelon. We don't have it much at home - it's such a messy food. But we're far away and it's too dark to see how anyone's eating anything.

I can hardly wait for my father to bring two huge wedges back from the concession stand. We sit together cross-legged, biting into the sticky, soft flesh. The first bites are sugary, mushy. Juice runs down my chin and I can imagine the pink beads on my borrowed sweater. When I hold my slice farther away, watermelon drops fall on my leg. My father says it doesn't matter.

Closer to the rind, the watermelon becomes firmer. Dad shows me how to spit its seeds, a skill I lack the patience to acquire. Instead, I dribble them into my hand and scatter them in the dark, fancying we will return next year to find full-grown fruit.

Later, we discuss how Myrrha will do in her classes tomorrow and what third grade will be like in the fall. We imagine my sisters back home, a place at the other end of everything.

What matters right here, right now, is that I have my father completely to myself. I am gazing at the stars, the taste of watermelon in my mouth.

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