I placed the half-full bucket of black walnuts on the ground and took a deep breath. For Gram, it’s not so hard to carry, but I’m still little and half-full is more than enough for me. I turned around and looked back toward her back yard, full of trees, scanning the surface to see if I had missed any black walnuts.
I soon realized this was a stupid thing to do because when the walnuts fall from the trees, they are still in their green shell. My eyes are not good enough to pick out the difference between them and the grass, and I’m not wearing my glasses like I should be. I don’t ever wear them unless Mom makes me.
I empty the bucket by handfuls into an old fifty-pound onion bag until the bucket is light enough for me pick up and tip the black walnuts the rest of the way in. When the black walnuts are in their green shell, they smell a bit like lemons. If you lean over the bucket just right, the smell drifts into the air and up my nose.
Then, I walk over to the black walnut tree where Uncle Dick will hang a deer in a couple of months and begin looking around the ground for more black walnuts. I put them into the bucket and then wrap my right arm around the tree and swing around in circles, feeling the bark of the tree with my eyes closed.
The gray-black bark on the black walnut tree is different from other trees. It has ridges. I walk my fingers between the ridges and pretend they are people standing on a high mountain ridge looking into the distance. They must climb up and down in a never-ending circle of ridges.
At some point, I realize I am humming, “The Bear Climbed Over the Mountain,” and stop moving. My fingers are no longer mountaineers, but that stupid bear from the song. I bonk my head against the tree, exhale, and return to picking up the black walnuts from the ground.
I sometimes wish I could climb the black walnut trees like the other trees in Gram’s yard, but the first branch on all of them are too high up, even when I jump. Gram said the trees know when the black walnuts are ripe and drop them for us to gather when the time is right. This was easier to learn than when I should pick the wild blackberries at the edge of Gram’s garden.
Occasionally, a squirrel will knock one loose before it is supposed to fall, but even they seem to mostly wait until the big, green balls fall by themselves.
I move from the edge of the driveway down an incline to the sand pile where I play with my Matchbox cars. Susie, Gram’s cat, also buries her poop here. Luckily, when I dig new trails and tunnels, which I always do by hand, I have never hit fresh poop. The old stuff is just hard and I toss it behind me and past Gram’s rhubarb patch.
Next to the rhubarb patch, there are two more black walnut trees. I gather up what I can find. These two are always difficult because there are leaves from other trees, patches of grass, and dirt, so the green shells are hard to see. I don’t mind. The squirrels are good at finding them and they have to eat, too.
I drag the bucket back up the hill and over to the area next to the back porch, and start dumping the shells again. Gram comes out the back door and asks me if I’m almost done. I nod my head “yes” and keep emptying the bucket.
I sit down on the cinder block to rest for a few minutes. It’s not comfortable, but Gram gets to sit on the stool. Gram goes back inside and comes back out with two hammers and a bowl. She picks up another bucket that was sitting on the porch and joins me.
She sits down and hands me the hammer with the wooden handle. She knows it’s my favorite. We don’t have to say anything. This is ritual we perform each Autumn.
We pick up the green shells of the black walnuts, collect them in buckets, wait a few weeks until the shells have turned slightly yellow, then black, peel off the shells and get to the nut inside. It takes a long time, but I like doing it. I don’t mind the hours sitting in the back yard with Gram smashing things with a hammer.
Gram pulls a pile of nuts from her bucket and places them on the ground between us. I have a makeshift table in front of me consisting of four cinder blocks, two on top of each other, and a piece of wood on top of the blocks.
Gram and I take the now darkened shells and begin splitting them open. She is much better at it than me. She may be petite, but I still wouldn’t mess with her. The shells break apart in our hands and fall onto the ground. Sometimes, I need to whack it gently with the claw of my hammer, making a dent where I can get my fingers in to work the shell off.
Our hands begin staining with the juices inside. These yellowish-brown stains cannot be washed off, so you have to be careful. They only wear off, like a marker, except your entire hand is covered. The inner shell is black and has ridges, too. It looks like your fingers when you’ve been in the bath for too long. The black shells go onto the makeshift table while we continue to sort through the pile Gram placed on the ground.
I get a hold of one black walnut and the outer shell easily crushes in my hand. A few maggots emerge.
I hold my left hand out toward her and show her my discovery.
“Give it to me and go get the hose.”
She holds out her hands, cupped, ready to receive my discovery. I transfer the black walnut and maggots to her, carefully making sure all the maggots go into her hand. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the maggots’ lives are soon over.
I instinctively wipe my hands on my shorts. I am only thinking I need dry hands to handle the hose properly. In one instant, I don’t care and a fear comes over me. I hate the clothes I am wearing, but I am not old enough to pick my clothes yet, so I don’t care if they are ruined.
I hate wearing shorts and tank tops, but that is what Mom chose for me. I have to wear them. I can sometimes make a compromise in colors, but even then, I am not always successful.
“Crap,” I say. I hold my hands forward. Gram looks at me, but cannot actually touch my clothing. She, too, has walnut juice on her hands and is holding a maggot-filled black walnut.
“Where did you get it on you?” Her voice is calm. I’m not in trouble, but the stories she has told me of using the juice for dying hair or wool for clothing and for Indian war paint come to the forefront of my mind. The juice has a use, but not right now.
I look on both sides of my shorts. It’s only on the right side, so I turn my right hip toward her. She inspects it with her eyes.
“That’s not too bad,” She says. “When you change into your pajamas, bring them to me and I’ll see what I can do.”
Gram is a master of stains. She regularly has to get mud and grass stains out of my pants. She also knows Mom will be angry over the stain on my shorts. We are poor and clothes are limited. I’m supposed to take care of my things to make them last as long as possible except I never think about that. I just think about what I am doing at the moment.
Mom, my sister, and I live next door to Gram and anyone driving down the street often enough will spot me in the morning running between the two houses in my pajamas. Mom works nights, so we stay with Gram a lot. I usually run across my yard to Gram’s house in the morning because I never remember to bring clothes for the next day.
Gram interrupts my thoughts. “Go get the hose.”
I run around the house, down the driveway, and to the spigot where the hose is attached. I turn the hose on and unravel it as I run back to Gram.
She has walked partway down the hill in the back yard and I join her. She places the black walnut and the maggots on the ground, swipes her hand back and forth to make sure everything is off her and stands up.
Gram turns the indicator on the spray nozzle at the end of the hose to a straight stream. If you hit a person with it, it feels like your skin is going to peel off. I imagine it’s worse for maggots. She presses the lever and moves the stream of water with precision to make sure every last maggot is taken care of before stopping, turning the indicator to more of a spray, and picks up the dark, inner shell in her hand. Gently waving it back and forth across her hand to clean the shell.
When she is finished, she puts the shell in my hand and says, “There ya go.”
“Thanks.” I pause for a moment. “Should I put the hose away?”
“No. Leave it out just in case.”
We both return to our task until the first pile is complete. Once there is a large pile of only black inner shells, my job changes. I gather up the pile and go to the porch. I pick up other black shells that have been resting on old newspapers and put them in an empty bucket. The new shells we just did will go onto the newspaper.
“How long do you leave these here?” I yell from the porch toward Gram.
“Oh, I don’t know, a few days or so,” Gram replies. That phrase is used often, especially when Gram is cooking or baking. She doesn’t follow directions so she doesn’t remember the measurements anymore. Everything “looks about right” as she cooks and bakes. I don’t know it at the time, but it is how I will cook in the future, too.
We will lose some of these shells to the squirrels that live here. Gram doesn’t seem to mind. Occasionally, she will mention the “damn squirrels” when they have gotten some shells and scattered the rest on the porch. I think the squirrels pay as good attention as me sometimes.
I bring the dried out black shells back to my makeshift table as well as the now empty bucket. Gram will place her new black shells into the bucket and, from time to time, I will take them back up to the porch and line them perfectly into rows on the newspaper for the sun to dry.
I take out the black shells, a few at a time, and place them on the right side of the makeshift table, leaving one on the left. This part is hard because you have to use the hammer to knock off a few of its ridges, then smash it hard.
It takes a few tries for each one because I’m not as strong as Gram. Each year, I get a little stronger and my technique gets better, making my task more efficient. I’m not perfect and sometimes I screw up. Most of the time, the nutmeat is broken into a few pieces. It doesn’t need to be whole, though I consider it a big win for me when it happens.
We will go into the house later where I will use Gram’s hand grinder for nuts to make smaller pieces. What I don’t sneak and eat, will eventually go into Gram and Mom’s banana breads this Christmas.
“Hey! I got one whole.” I hold up my tiny prize, proud I managed to knock the shell open, get past the sharp edges of the shell, and pull the nutmeat out whole.
“Well, that means you can eat that one,” Gram says.
I quickly pop the black walnut in my mouth. They taste sweeter than the walnuts Mom buys in the store. Sometimes, with all her Christmas baking, our backyard haul is not enough and Mom has to rely on store-bought walnuts. I don’t like those ones. They scrape across my teeth and are bitter tasting compared to black walnuts.
Mom makes a bunch of big and little banana breads, but she always makes sure to save me a little one with extra black walnuts in it. No one else is allowed to eat it unless I want to share. I usually bring it over to Gram’s house and we eat the entire little loaf in one sitting. I have yet to learn self-control.
After eating my prize, I go back to cracking open the black shells with my hammer. Sometimes, I miss. The thumb and forefinger of my right hand is always bruised after a day shelling black walnuts. My fingers are usually bloody with small cuts all over.
The black shell is hard to get into. When the hammer strikes off a piece, it is sharp all over. I cut my right thumb as my fingers slip while attempting to pry the shell open. I tuck my thumb under my fingers and apply pressure. Gram and the Girls Scouts taught me the importance of applying pressure to a wound. I think about how easy squirrels use their teeth to get into the shells and how I don’t want to be bitten by a squirrel.
“Yep.” I lie. It stings. I’ve still got black walnut juice mixed with sweat on my hands and it’s trying to enter my wound.
I check my thumb again. The bleeding seems to have stopped. I open my hand and shake it in the air. I don’t know if this is what I’m supposed to do, but it’s what I see all the adults do when they hurt themselves.
I pick up the partially open shell and give it a few more whacks. I get the nut out, in pieces, and place it into Gram’s bowl. I grab another shell and get back to work.
We spend all afternoon with the black walnuts. Even though I am tired, I know Gram is old and doesn’t want to do this by herself. She’s at least fifty. So, I keep working until she says it’s time to stop.
As we clean up the piles of green, yellowish, and black outer shells and put them into a bucket, Gram says, “Take the hulls and put them on the compost heap.”
Hulls. I can never remember this name. I can remember outer shell and inner shell, and colors, but that word never sticks in my mind.
Juglans nigra, however did. That’s the scientific name of the eastern black walnut. Even though Gram only has a high school education, she’s smarter than most people with college degrees. Just because you aren’t in school doesn’t mean you should stop learning, she always says.
Whenever she can, she teaches me the proper names of plants and animals in the hopes I will remember them. I don’t always succeed.
I take the pile down to the compost heap and dump it. I look at the tiny bugs, many of which I recognize, but do not know their names, as they eat the bits of tomato, cucumber, and other things that are placed on the compost heap.
I don’t actually know what Gram does with this stuff, but I squat down like a catcher in baseball, and watch the critters complete their tasks, whatever they are. I’m sure their grandmas sent them out to do something, too.