FROM THE BY SARAH NIGBOR Blackberries and bittersweet Whenever we visit my husband’s grandparents in mid-summer, out come the empty ice cream buckets ready to be filled with blackberries, blackcaps …
BY SARAH NIGBOR
Blackberries and bittersweet
Whenever we visit my husband’s grandparents in mid-summer, out come the empty ice cream buckets ready to be filled with blackberries, blackcaps and raspberries. The kids and I troop through the long grass down to the field, which is lined with berry bushes. Grasshoppers zing away from our crushing feet and the sun beats on our backs. The air is usually thick as butter, humid and hot.
It’s a competition, of course, to see who can fill their bucket the most. I tend to do better than the kids, because I have enough self-control not to stuff the sweet fruit in my mouth as I pick. They usually look into my bucket with big eyes, astonished and baffled that I somehow have more berries than they do. The telltale purple stains on their fingers and around their mouths give them away. Those lazy summer afternoons bring me back to my childhood.
I had exceptional teachers in berry picking. My grandparents took berry picking very seriously, but especially my grandpa. He had strawberries, raspberries and blackcaps he cultivated in his garden. He would tie a bucket around his waist with a shoestring, which kept both hands free for picking. His hands seemed to glide between the thorny brambles, plucking berries quickly and efficiently. No matter how I tried, I could never pick as fast as him.
My grandpa was a homebody, but once in a while, we would go on an adventure. I was so excited when he took me to my great-uncle and great-aunt’s farm near Elmwood, because we had permission to pick in a neighbor’s blackberry patch. It was hotter than hades but I didn’t care. I was with my grandpa and he trusted me enough to pick berries. It was like treasure hunting. The berries sparkled like black jewels, often hiding underneath the leaves. The biggest, plumpest berries always seemed to be toward the bottom of the bush. We picked for hours. My grandpa wouldn’t leave a berry patch until every berry was in his buckets.
My grandpa and grandma took me blueberry picking at Rush River Produce near Maiden Rock one summer. We crawled between the rows and I, around 13 or 14 at the time, tried in vain to keep up with my grandparents. Bucket after bucket we picked, and I could never out pick them, though I tried. As we rode home in the late afternoon, the car dipping and climbing the highways as we wound through the hills, I was tired down to my bones. I felt drowsy, yet happy. It made me feel good to work hard, and even better to make my grandparents proud.
When I lived in Beldenville, I walked every day on a gravel road that wound its way over the Trimbelle and up onto a ridge. To my delight, I found a wild blackcap patch along the road in the woods, spilling into a dry run that ran under the road. The next day, I brought along an ice cream bucket, and was surprised I found enough berries to fill it. I brought them to my grandparents’ and my grandpa’s eyes lit up. In his 90s, he said he had half a mind to come with me the next time. I wish he had.
Picking the berries was only half the work. My grandma would make them into delicious jams, jellies, sauces and pies. It was like a bite of sunshine to have a dish of berry sauce or a piece of blueberry pie in the middle of gray winter.
My grandpa also taught me which berries not to pick, no matter how tempting. The most beautiful of all those was bittersweet. Although we couldn’t eat the bright orange berries, my grandpa delighted in the woody vines. The whole eastern wall of his little wood shop was covered in bittersweet. In fall, the leaves would just blaze. Sometimes we would pick a bunch to bring in the house, just because they were pretty.
Fast forward 30 years. As the kids and I troop back to the house with buckets of blackberries, I’m taken back to those long ago hot summer days when my arms were covered in berry bramble scratches and my grandpa’s denim shirt and tall form were in front of me, weaving his way through the bushes. I almost feel like he’s beside me when I’m picking berries.