Today’s rain would have altered plans, if today were thirty years ago. Thirty years ago, my family was sitting at a table on pea gravel under our deck eating a meal together, chalk on the concrete foundation proclaiming the venue “Augusta the Third’s” — a pop up eatery in today’s parlance — to celebrate my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary. And they were ecstatic.
So it was every August 3rd. Maybe not the under-the-deck dining, but some adventure that might seem small but was treasured by Grandma and Grandpa as my mom and I set out with them to celebrate their anniversary. No doubt, if they were still here and able to celebrate, the four of us would set off again today for their eightieth.
Weather permitting, it’d have been to go get peaches.
While people usually think of peaches and think Georgia, those of us here in St. Louis know that some of the best actually come from peninsular Calhoun County, Illinois, a ferry and scenic riverside drive away from the rest of the metro area.
My grandma and grandpa made it a family tradition to trek down the local segment of the Great River Road and across the ferries to get peaches throughout July and the early parts of August each year. We’d leave relatively early, often with a picnic packed by my grandma or my mom, and head off to Alton, down the River Road and across the ferry to rolling hills of that delightful county of peach bliss.
Calhoun County has neither the steep, rocky hills of the upper Ozark Mountains that border St. Louis, nor the flat fields of Northern Missouri and much if Illinois. A place that feels distinctly other from its neighboring cities, the county has rolling hills covered with beautiful woods, patchwork fields that would make a quilter envious and orchard after orchard of peaches and apples.
Somewhere in the tapestry of the land, we’d pull over and have our picnic, perhaps one of the wetlands just next to the Mississippi or Illinois Rivers. We’d talk, joke, take in the beauty of nature and — if the right music were playing on the radio — my grandpa and I might “sing.” Occasionally, he might swat me while I looked out the window and then try to convince my grandma and mom that I was causing trouble as his mischievous smile (and past reputation) inevitably told on him.
Finally, mid-afternoon, we would roll into the orchard. There were many to enjoy, but over the years, my grandparents had stopped most of all at Hagen Family Orchard and it had come to feel like stopping to see family. My grandpa, especially, relished taking time to talk to the proprietors, who had become not just his favorite peach sellers, but his friends, and we all would enjoy the time there as the wafting aroma of ripe peaches filled the room.
Early peaches were wonderful for the anticipation that coated each bite, but the real jewels were the mid-season ones — my grandpa especially loved the Loring — that would show up around anniversary time each summer. As great as the other peaches were, those gushed with the perfect peach sweetness, the gentle fuzz of the skin and the melt-in-your-mouth ripeness of the fruit the absolute definition of ambrosian. Absolutely nothing needed to be added to them.
One of the things we all loved about Hagen was that they sold “overripe” peaches. Ironically, “ripe” peaches often aren’t ripe enough for full enjoyment yet, but oh, the overripes! Overripe ones were not only cheaper, they were also far more ready to enjoy. Visiting ended, we’d sit in the car on the gravel parking lot and Grandpa would pull out his trusty pocketknife (think not of how little it was sanitized) and passed out slices of a peach from one of the baskets we’d loaded into the car.
It was delicious. And so was the day. I can taste those moments sitting there — Grandpa right next to me slicing the peach — as if it were this afternoon.
On a regular summer day trip there, we might then take one last ferry back to St. Charles County and return home. On August 3, the day would go on to dinner, my dad and uncle arriving from work to join in the celebration. But longer day or short, the sweetness and warmth of us all sharing time together glowed brighter than the sunlight that frolicked on the water as we rode the ferry home.
Whatever gifts or celebrations might have been wrapped around an anniversary, it was the gift of that time together they wanted — and they gave. And years since they passed, the treasure of those moments grows only sweeter like an overripe peach.