I have had a lot of relatives die lately. Four since December. They have all been advanced in years, and none of their deaths could be called unexpected. As can be the case when a loved one dies, each death has occasioned a lot of remembering for me. I have remembered funny things, like my father getting out of his car at the George Washington Bridge asking for change, since he had driven into the exact change lane without exact change, or a house where there were always good things to eat, or instances where a love of the Red Sox was fostered. In fact, it is not unusual. Many of us are filled with stories, using the amazing faculty of memory to make past experiences present again, to make them real once more.
One memory evoked by today’s readings was one that takes me to one of my aunt’s house, where, in the back yard, there were grapes. I recall these grapes for many reasons. First, the location of the grapes sometimes made baseball a little difficult to play, and I must confess that there were times when a wayward pitch caused some damage for the grapes. There was the difficulty in following directions to wait until the grapes were ripe, only to know they would be picked for jam or some other treat.
The grapes were better than raspberries, which were at another aunt’s place, because even though the raspberries were more plentiful, one ran the risk of encountering a snake in the raspberry patch. Despite the snake stick, the method of protection devised by my aunt as we engaged the risk of the snakes (likely harmless grass snakes, or maybe equally harmless milk snakes, though we did not know that).
Growing up in a rural world, it was not possible to avoid gaining at least some knowledge of the natural world. It was all around us. Whether it was playing hide and seek in the corn stalks that seemed to extend for ever behind the small car dealership in my relatives small town, the blackberries that were endlessly available, which contributed to many a delicious pie made by my mother and others, the rhubarb which grew everywhere, my life was one surrounded by images like the vine in today’s gospel.
As I look back on those days of my childhood, the grapes, the raspberries, blackberries and corn were not really about what they produced, as tasty as those things were. Rather, they connected me and my relatives to something much bigger and more important. They served only as the means to teach us about how we were connected, that even in those times when we were scattered far from our summers in this small town, we were never really all that far apart. We had these common experiences that connected us.