[Raspberry patch in my backyard, 2012]
Stephen Rossmer (my father, Sonya’s grandfather) yearned for various things from his Bamberg homeland, which he left as a refugee at the age of 33. The yearning was driven by the loss of his parents who were killed in April, 1942 outside of Lublin, Poland where they had been transported by the Nazis. The garden of their home in Bamberg, shared by two generations of Rossmers who lived in the same building, held special meaning for him. In the mid-1950’s he bought a house in Englewood, New Jersey with a small garden. The house even had timber-framing (fachwerk) with dark brown wood and light buff colored stucco forming irregular triangles. This form of construction was reminiscent of the historic houses in Bamberg.
The square, suburban sized backyard, surrounded by a white picket fence, had nice plantings of rhododendron, magnolia and dogwood trees, and between the “rhodies” were several tall pine trees. I was excited to have this small patch of earth and I began learning about gardening, planting small annuals at the edges of the manicured borders. Before long, my father decided he wanted to grow currants and gooseberries. These two berry variants are common in Germany, and he was thrilled to be able to grow his own. Fresh currants, and especially gooseberries, were very uncommonly sold in the produce stores in the New York area. After a year or two, small crops of jewel-like berries were visible under the kitchen window against the brick back wall of the house. They were easy to pick and good to eat. I recall the berries getting sugared, but not too heavily. They were sweet enough and rather pithy. That is, each had a vigorous and unique tang. Sometimes the currants were served with raspberries, a very common mingling. Before long, my father found out that his berry bushes were illegal. It must have been quite a blow. He did not know that these plants, both gooseberry and currant, but most especially black currant, can carry a blister rust (cronartium pibicola) that is fatal to White Pine trees.
[Left, berries for sale at farmers’ market in Berlin, 2011; Right, red currants, 2011]
In fact, that is why these berries were so scarce in the States. Once he found out about the problem, my father dug up and got rid of his delightful crop plants. He never looked back. Being a good American meant more to him than even these wonderful berries. Today, there are hybridized disease-resistant ribes nigrum, or black currant varieties, and red currants and gooseberries are permitted in most parts of New Jersey. This ‘berry-love’ was not lost on me. In fact, along one side of the house in Englewood, there were a few somewhat straggly raspberry bushes, acquired by my parents from their (German-Jewish) dentist’s property in rural New Jersey. These bushes were tenacious and productive. I moved my first transplants in the 60’s to upstate New York, where I was then living. They have travelled with me as I have moved to Brookline, Richmond, and Medford – all in Massachusetts – in the years since. In Richmond, they grew into a sizable rural raspberry patch and one summer the delectable berries were sold to several restaurants and bakeries in the Berkshires. In my current garden in Medford, this summer – after a non-winter produced a very early, super-abundant crop — I made my usual 8 jars of jam and had enough berries left to make raspberry sauce, eat fresh berries for a couple of weeks, and still have a pint in the freezer. Ancestral berry love continues strong.