Get Outside: Family heirlooms


MANCHESTER — We all depart from somewhere else as we journey forward, and the belongings we bring along come from somewhere else too.

There is vocabulary to describe this bringing along of possessions into the future: tradition, custom, heirloom, heritage — and alongside these there are stories created to help us better remember the lineage of our belongings.

We share these words with our children at bedtime while reading a dog-eared copy of "Goodnight Moon," and with our great grandparents on porches while sipping lemonade poured from a passed down bubble glass pitcher.

Outside there are deer camps and beach houses to be shared. Your uncle was a seed saver and you reap the benefits of heirloom vegetables growing in your backyard. Those third cousins out in Minnesota built a wooden canoe long ago, and now years later it is docked lakeside here in Vermont.

You would be hard pressed to find a soul who does not have a single story of possession, no matter if his pocket might contain a dried moth wing or the queen's six pence. Stories attached to such things are what make the memories of our world go `round.

The leaves here in New England have changed rapidly and the cold air is moving in; I am keyed in to such a story of my own as I approach the trellis draped over our front walkway, its every surface covered in Concord grape vines.

My grandfather was Tyrolean, living there among the Italian Alps and the Dolomites doing the intense handwork required of him to help with the wine-making. From the beginning, this was to be a family affair. He found his way to Flushing, New York, but the Italian grape vines could not come with him, so he found his way down to the train yard. There my grandfather would buy box upon box of grapes shipped in from California. He would haul them home and do with them what his heritage had taught him.

By all counts the wine he made was delicious.

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Eventually, he became intrigued by the Concord grape, prevalent in America, and planted a vine in his tiny yard. He was surprised to see it flourish.

My grandparents retired and moved to Pennsylvania to be closer to my parents, and as the story goes, me — the first born grandchild. My grandfather Dario bought a van so that he could personally move the barrels and demijohns and siphons himself to the new space. Using it to also move furniture and clothing was an afterthought.

In the large yard Dario began the work of planting vines for a modest vineyard; a few reds and one white variety made it into the ground along with the Concord dug up from Flushing. The first harvest, three years later, was preserved in barrels for my wedding and later my brother's. I was a toddler and my brother had only just been born.

By the time I married in 1998 my grandfather had passed away, but we poured toasts from the green glass wine bottles and savored our strong tradition held firm with memories of him.

When my husband and I began our life in Vermont, my father sent me off with propagations from the family's Concord grape vines. He helped us plant them in the yard and modeled how to encourage proper growth. I have called him a million times since then for instructions on all things Concord. My Dad instructs me on how to tend to the off shoots, when to know the grapes are ready to be picked, and how to prevent black leaf disease.

At some point it dawned on me that my father, who was coaching me, had been taught all these things by his wine loving Italian father-in- law. My mother, the precious only child of my grandparents, had been taught too. Using a purple stained recipe card covered in my grandmother's delicate script, Mom creates a mouth-watering grape jelly.

Those first few grape growing years I was learning by the seat of my pants, but just a short while ago my parents came to visit and my father inspected my fall grape harvest.

As Dad smeared some homemade grape jelly onto his toast I held my breath, then it came "This isn't wine, but your grandfather would be proud all the same."

It's the least I could do to honor the memory of a grandfather who moved all those miles just to be closer to me, bringing along his precious grapes to my nativity.


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