In the early sixties, Mrs. Anna owned a store and a home in our small, impoverished neighborhood. She and her husband were the affluent couple in the neighborhood and had little or no interaction with the other families. They were from another part of the world, somewhere in Europe, and no one, including me, understood or tried to understand the couple. I remember that they were always a bit stoic, unmoving, when dealing with customers. I never knew Mrs. Anna's husband name. He always stood in the back, a bit quiet, and let Mrs. Anna deal with the neighborhood customers and the gangs of children who raided their cherry trees.
The trees were shielded from the street by a short fence, that most children could easily jump over. But it was rare that any of us would actually go into their yard. The branches from the trees extended over the fence and hovered above the sidewalk. Those were the branches that received most of our attention. We somehow felt cherries within our reach, that we could grab without trespassing, were fair game.
Of course Mrs. Anna did not feel that way and as much as we terrorized her with our actions, she responded in kind with angry words and sweeping strokes from her broom. Usually, we would laugh at her and run our way. We didn't understand her anger and I am sure she didn't understand our desire to steal her cherries.
Her small brick house with its well manicured lawn sat next door to our house. When my siblings and I weren't running with the neighborhood children, we were actually pretty well-behaved. Our mother saw to that. In fact had she known we were stealing Mrs. Anna's cherries with the rest of the children, she would have put a stop to it right away. One day when I was playing out back I saw Mrs. Anna come out of her back door with a bucket and walk to the front. She took a small step-ladder and some snips and began to pick her cherries. It was a hot day and I could see the heat of the sun was making her uncomfortable. I went back to my play. A few minutes later my mother came outside and walked over to me and said, "Go help Mrs. Anna."
I immediately complained, "Aw ma, she's mean and hates all the neighborhood kids. She won't give us any of her stinking cherries. I don't want to help her."
"I don't care. She's our neighbor and I heard that the Mister is sick. So you get your behind over there right now and help her."
No one I knew hit harder than my mother and despite our history, I was more than happy to help Mrs. Anna with her cherries, once I saw the glare in my mother's eye. She meant what she said so I made my way through Mrs Anna's back gate and to joined her in the front yard.
"Mrs. Anna," I said, as I walked up on her, "My mother said that I have to help you with your cherries."
"I don't have money to pay you,"she snapped back, in a heavy, Slavic accent.
"I'm not allowed to take money for helping you. I'm helping you because my mama said you need help. So, here I am. If you don't want my help ma'am, please tell my mom and then I can go back to my game."
She smiled. "No, I think I can use your help. Here, you hold the bucket while I go back up and pick the cherries." And so for the next two hours or so we picked cherries. Afterwards, she invited me in her house for a lemonade. Her husband was sitting in a wheelchair, silently listening to a program on the radio. I spoke to him, he nodded with a smile, and then focused back on his program as I followed Mrs. Anna into the kitchen. I took a seat at the kitchen table and she put a nice cold lemonade and a bowl of pretzels in front of me and joined me at the table.
"So," she started, taking a drink of her lemonade, "Why do you and your friends steal my cherries?"
"Because they are good. And we're hungry."
She smiled at me and said, "You don't need to steal my cherries. If you want them, just ask."
I finished my lemonade and went home. The next day my mother sent me to Mrs. Anna's store to pick up some flour. When I went inside, there were small baskets of strawberries on the counter. Beside the baskets was a sign that said, "Free cherries for the children."
We finally understood one another.