The un-bear-able lightness of Elderberry wine


Pleased to post this entry into our “Something to wine about” contest by our long-time tribal member, Miryam, now living in Israel with Baruch. (Hope to visit you this summer!)  We’ve decided to extend the deadline for this contest to May 10th, and will announce the winner at the reunion of writers in Oceanside, California on May 23rd.  Here is Miryam’s take on our contest.  I do hope you, too, have something you’d like to submit.  What’s your story?

The Odd Couple

by Miryam Howard-Meier


It may appear odd for a young boy of ten to have an eccentric old lady as a friend, but sometimes it is the oddities in life that end up being the most significant.


We met without warning on a street corner where we were busking for spare change. It must have been fate that day. I was a scraggly streetwise orphan and Miss Sade, a lonely recluse since losing her twins in a house fire, that caused our needy souls to find one another that cold December day. Whatever the reasons, we were destined to become kindred spirits…


It was hard for everyone during the depression, but Miss Sade taught me the importance of being self sufficient. She was an expert on which wild mushrooms were safe to eat and very proud of  her “Victory Garden” which she claimed was the best in all of Wisconsin. She never went to a city doctor and would always say to me, “Harlen, we have all the medicine we will ever need growing in these here-woods!”  She once pulled her own tooth out with barely a flinch as I stood watching in awe and could set a broken leg or stitch a wound if needed. In my ten-year old world, she was smarter than the Pope, but I would never say this out loud in front of Sister Mary Catherine at the orphanage for fear of great consequences!


I skipped out of Sunday mass to meet Miss Sade this September morning. She had a mug of steamy sassafras tea and a chunk of hot fry-bread with honey waiting for me. We needed an early start for pick’n as it could get hot and buggie later in the afternoon. Off into the dense woods we trekked with our baskets slung over our shoulders and Miss Sade’s “Savage Model 1895” hunting rifle in tow. It wasn’t long and we came upon a big patch of purple elderberries with juicy clusters that hung heavy as church bells. With our baskets overflowing we hiked back to Miss Sade’s cabin, stopping at Coon Creek to wash our berries.

Out of the woods, an ominous guttural breath suddenly brought us to attention and stopped us in our tracks. We stood frozen as thieves caught in the act when a mature Black Bear with her two cubs appeared before us. Miss Sade slowly lowered her rifle from its sling and aimed. As time stood still, the mother bear methodically raised her wet snout in my direction while sniffing the air, resulting in our eyes meeting like two desperate souls eager to survive. There was just a small creek between us as she slowly rose on her muscular back haunches in a high and mighty display, emitting a thunderous rumbling growl that caused all the wild creatures to scurry. The bright sun’s reflection upon her glossy thick fur was blinding as her massive stature encased me. One move in our direction and I knew Miss Sade would shoot. My heart was thumping out of my chest as sweat trickled down my brow in fear. And then, in one brief moment this enormous creature exhaled a deep throaty grunt as her body twisted down with the precision of a ballet dancer and retreated back into the woods.

Later, at Miss Sade’s cabin, after regaining my composure, I asked, “Why didn’t that mother bear attack us?” Miss Sade let out one of her howling laughs and jested, “I guess we just weren’t fat enough for that picky bear’s lunch!” She then shared with me that her Indian neighbors say that when a bear visits you and you live to tell about it, it’s a sign you will be given much strength in life. From that time on Miss Sade always referred to me as her ‘Strong Little Bear.’


Soon there were jars of syrups and jams lining the counters. Some had orange peel added, some a few clove buds, and others, chunks of ginger. Honey from Miss Sade’s bee hives was always plentiful and added freely. Her prized Elderberry wine was safely deposited on a high shelf in the cool pantry for several months and was highly popular for trading and only served on rare special occasions such as birthdays and on New Year’s Eve. Once a year we would load up the old wagon with several bottles and visit the camps of the nearby Gypsies and Ho-Chunk Indians; trading for wool blankets, woven baskets and wheat berries.


Despite our on-going adventures, Miss Sade insisted that my education not be neglected and would inspect my report cards carefully. She complained that her old eyes were losing focus — asking me to read them to her, however, I discovered fairly soon that her eyes were fine and she had just never learned to read. So that year I gave her lessons and we took turns reading aloud every book I could get my hands on.


When the day arrived for my high school graduation, I believe Miss Sade was more excited than I was. The orphanage mustered up a used suit and tie and some borrowed shoes that were too big for my feet. Miss Sade hitched a ride to the ceremony with one of the townsfolk to surprise me. She had sewn herself a new blue dress and pinned a handful of fresh yellow daisies to her straw hat just for the occasion. As I received my diploma, I spotted Miss Sade’s tear-soaked kerchief waving at me through the crowd.


I was anxious to explore the world after graduation and was lucky to get my first real paying job with the Mississippi River Transport company where I worked until signing up for the Navy after Pearl Harbor, but whenever I got shore leave for a few days I would always visit Miss Sade. We would sit in her rustic cabin sharing our latest adventures together while sipping on the most delicious Elderberry wine.




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