When I was a little girl, some random fall Sunday, Mom and Dad loaded us kids up in the car and took us on a treasure hunt. I had no idea just what a treasure we were really seeking. To me, they were just walnuts; just a Sunday drive that got us all in the car, together for a ride out along some back roads,. We had a hickory nut tree out in the field behind our house, so I didn’t understand the allure of black walnuts. They were Dad’s favorite, and priceless.
I loved those trips with everybody crammed together in the car like that, except for Julie complaining, “Don’t touch me,” in that voice like fingernails on a chalkboard; the kind of voice I would do anything to just make it stop. I thought she should always ride up front, ’cause nobody minded being squeezed between Mom and Dad
Dad drove a tinsy bit slower than normal on those dirt roads like he was trying to figure out just where he was going. Besides, too fast on a dirt road, and gravel pinged up all over the car, and dust came in the windows. Sometimes Bonita stuck her head out the window and pretended to be a dog. She figured out how to make a whistling sound by making a big “O” with her mouth, then closing and opening it as the wind from the car moved over her face. Bonita never did learn to whistle, which made her feel left out, so she made up other ways to make a whistle noise. The best was just calling out “oww-ooo-ouuut,” up high, next to a scream. Her way of whistling caught on so well, all us kids and Nancy and Doug from across the road used that noise for a secret signal. I had to hand it to Bonita: she was a good improviser.
Dad looked up at the tree leaves as he drove, looking for those black walnut leaves. I looked too, but to be honest, they all just looked like trees to me. Well, I could tell a pine tree from the rest; mostly I just classified trees as good climbers or no. I sure did like looking up through those tree leave; the sun blinking through, the leaves twisting back and forth, the fall air whispering through the drying leaves. That was wonderful.
“Stop, I see one.” Mom shouted out. But that tree had no nuts. “Nuts! Let’s keep looking.” I said, which made everyone laugh, like the time I said “It’s a beetle, step on it,” when we were counting VW beetles on our way to camping.
“You are so witty,” Mom said, and I could tell she was smiling that proud smile even before she put her arm across the back of the seat and turned to look at me. She’s smiling so happy at me, like I’m just the smartest girl in the whole wide world. Well, I am pretty smart, so that part is true, even though I wasn’t even trying to be funny; it was sort of an accident that the words came out clever.
“Looky, here. We hit the jackpot,” Dad said, pulling into somebody’s driveway. Somebody I never saw before, and didn’t know from Adam; somebody with little statues of boys in red coats on each side of a long paved driveway.
“Dee-ean. We can’t take walnuts out of some strangers yard,” Mom said, but Dad was already walking to the front door. He was good at talking to strangers, probably ’cause of all the strangers houses he went to, repairing phones and selling extensions so they could have a phone in every room. A guy had to be good at talking to strangers to get them to buy stuff they don’t need.
A tall man still dressed in his Sunday trousers, red and blue checked shirt with buttons holding the sharp corners of the collar down, stepped Sunday leather shoes out onto his porch. He smiled and waved at all of us sitting in the car, waiting with our heads sticking out the windows, Bonita’s hair wisping out every which-a-way, and Mom resting her arm on the open window, looking peaceful and happy with Johnny sleeping against her chest, just like she did the first thing in the morning, sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of coffee.
“He said we’d be doing him a favor,” Dad said. “Pile out, let’s go.”
Deanna and Bonita, and Vickie, and I started picking up walnuts and putting them into gunny sacks. Frankie helped me for a while, but Little Kids can’t pay attention very long, so pretty soon, he wandered off with Loren and Julie. Dad climbed up in the tree and rained more walnuts down on us. “Look out below,” he called out, just like when he threw hay our of the hayloft.
“Hey that hurt,” I said as us Big Kids ran for cover. Still and all, we all laughed and laughed. This was the jackpot that’s for sure.
That fancy-dressed man came out when we were loading up and told us to come back anytime. Those walnuts were a nuisance to him: the squirrels buried them in his garden, the husks stained everything, and in short they were more trouble than they were worth.
Dad emptied all nuts into the ruts of our dirt and gravel driveway. Just normal driving of the car in and out of the drive, knocked all the husks off the walnuts. That was no work at all. Mom got us kids to crack the walnuts with a big rock and pick all the meats away from the shell. That way we had plenty of nuts for Dad’s favorite: ice cream and oatmeal cookies. It was hardly like work at all with sisters to help out and a sweet dessert getting whipped up in the kitchen.
Nothing quite matches the sharp taste of black walnuts. The trees are a bit of a nuisance, as the nuts and bark poison other plants around them. Anytime I see a plant failing to thrive, you can bet, buried a walnut close by. When my neighbor brought me a bowlful, I placed one behind the wheel of the car to demonstrate to G-money my Dad’s creative way of getting the husk off. My hands stayed stained for a week. I set the rest on the sideboard to dry. They’ll be cured and ready about the time I want to make Fruit Cakes for Christmas. Last year, I paid $20 a pound for black walnuts. Now, if I can just get a grandchild engaged in a good game of Nutcracker.