Last week I happened to drop by at a friend’s place and as I entered her kitchen, the smell of freshly picked olives filled my lungs. I stood still for a moment as memories of the olive pressing mill across the road from where I lived as a child, were being displayed right in front me. The old lady with her long black dress was standing clearing the leaves as olives were rolling down the belt, and the workers were filling buckets with olives from a truck parked outside and feeding the machine.
I was around five but I could not resist ignoring my mother’s instructions, actually disobeying, which were to just observe the commotion from our balcony. I wanted a closer look and luckily the old neighbour liked me and asked me to stand in the corner out-of-the-way. I started asking her many questions but it was her son’s newly wed bride who was willing to satisfy my curiosity.
I was more than happy to stay there all day and was quite eager to lend a hand but my grandfather who owned a shop right next door, called out to me: ” This is no place for a little girl, come and watch them from over here”. I adored my grandfather, and I liked to believe that I was his favourite. We sat on a bench in front of his shop observing and chatting. It was his turn to answer all of my questions and he happily obliged. I looked up to see my girlfriend watching from her balcony, I made a gesture so she would come join me, but she shrugged her shoulders and muttered something about not being allowed to do so. At that moment I felt so lucky and special and I was also praying that mum will stay occupied enough with her housework and will not summon me back home. I did not want to be princess Rapunzel who was locked up in her tower watching from above, I wanted to be a farmer’s daughter who is allowed to roam free in the valleys and pick wild berries in the forest.
Back at my friend’s kitchen, she told me she just picked her olive tree, but there are still many that she couldn’t reach. I offered to help and there we were with a small ladder outside on the street picking olives. Again I was inundated with childhood images of my parents, uncles and cousins going to the orchards climbing trees and picking fresh green almonds, berries and figs. However this is suburban Sydney and in no way bears any resemblance to the hills of a sleepy fishing town on the Mediterranean sea. No neighbours over here stand on balconies watching, nor do they walk down the streets greeting, chatting and enquiring about our olive picking. The street was quiet and a fresh sea breeze caressed our grinning faces and the almost fruitless and bare branches of the tree.
There we were, two grown up women giggling like children on their olive picking suburban adventure, memories were evoked as we both came from opposite competing olive growing regions in Lebanon, mine was in the North and hers in the South. My sisters and I for years endured the task of crushing olives for a few days until our mother was certain we had enough supply for the whole year, the teachers at school and the many special relatives. She would bask in the glory as people raved about her pickled olives, and except for our mum praising our hard work, our child labour went unnoticed.
We went back to the kitchen, and together we crushed my friend’s share of the olives and then I brought mine home to pickle. As I was enjoying the process I wondered why is it that childhood memories become so glorified as we get older! I don’t think I have the full answer.