(by Aimee Lee Ball)
There was something about my mother and summer. She looked great in shorts because she had the best legs in the whole world, which were really responsible for my existence. As a single working girl, she shopped at a small grocery store around the corner from her apartment in center-city Philadelphia, where my young father, recently returned from military service, was figuring out what to do with his life, while helping out his older brothers who owned the store. One day, he was bent over some cartons and looked up to see the best legs in the whole world. The rest is history.
My mother and I had such different internal thermostats that there was a running joke about how I could have come from her body. Apart from corn, tomatoes, and peaches, I could cheerfully skip July and August. Skiing was my sport until my knees started to complain. I'm thrilled when it comes time to put the down comforter on the bed. I love serving dinner by my fireplace, (My kitchen shuts down in hot weather.) But my mom’s season was summer.
Perhaps because she had an August birthday. (I hold no store in astrology, but if ever there was a Leo….) With her winter sweaters and tweeds mothballed in the attic, she eagerly anticipated a new summer wardrobe—sometimes store-bought, sometimes handmade, sometimes with a matching mother/daughter outfit for me. Maybe she'd read the classic New Yorker story “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” She tanned easily, in the years before we knew that a suntan is the visible evidence of the body’s attempt to protect itself after the skin is already damaged. (Another example of where our DNA parted ways: I have fish-belly white skin that only burned, peeled, and freckled.) So her summer dresses were often white, or a corally shade of orange, which matched her favorite lipstick. I don’t have any of those dresses. Although I have some of her clothes and all of her jewelry, the summer dresses were flimsy things, not meant for posterity. But I remember them well.
(Mom, on the left, with my godmother, in their summer dresses)
I remember her in bathing suits too, her legs shown to their best advantage, but I don’t remember ever seeing her swimming. She didn’t want to get her hair wet. Although in earlier photos she has lovely soft curls, she came to depend upon a regular appointment at the beauty salon owned by our next-door neighbors, where her hair was piled and lacquered into a French twist that lasted all week. Her hair had started to turn gray when she was 22 and was fully silver by the time I came along. I am embarrassed now that I was embarrassed then to have a gray-haired mother. She was youthful in every possible way, but kids do not want to be “different.”
Unlike me, Mom didn’t have much of a sweet tooth (seriously, was I adopted?) and she didn’t especially love spending time in the kitchen, but when the Jersey peaches were ripe at the farm market (and they had to be Jersey peaches, even though we lived in Pennsylvania), she made the most extraordinary peach pie. She did not teach me how to make it (she usually shooed me out of the kitchen when she was cooking because I was likely to “make a mess”). I don’t have her recipe, and don’t know its provenance, which is a great loss because I’ve never had a pie quite like it. I do have her rolling pin, which was actually her mother’s rolling pin, and when I attempt pie-baking, I try to summon up a culinary birthright from a grandmother who died before I was born, but great pie crust eludes me.
In September, when the peaches were no longer perfection, Mom would cook them with sugar, lemon juice, and almond extract, which she often preferred to vanilla. (My mother’s scent in my memory is a combination of almond extract, Shalimar, and Aqua Net.) “Stewed Peaches” sounds like something awful served at a boarding school (perhaps better to say "poached," although Mom never did) and in no way connotes this sublime dish, which made my mother’s favorite season linger just a little longer. And when I make them, summer is okay with me too.
4 - 5 ripe peaches, halved, pitted and peeled
1/3 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. water
juice of 1 small lemon
1/4 t. almond extract
Cut each peach half into thick wedges.
In a saucepan, combine sugar, water, lemon juice, and almond extract.
Bring to a boil, add peaches, and reduce heat to low.
Cook just until peaches are softened but still hold their shape, about 8 minutes.
Remove from heat and cool in the syrup that has formed.
Serve over ice cream or pound cake, or with yogurt and granola.