I’m writing today to celebrate the blackberries. Bob and I have been lured into the brambles each morning on our daily walk these past two weeks, as we discover plump fistfuls hanging under the shadiest leaves. Our one hour ramble stretches out to two hours as we fill our fists, our cheeks, our hats, a basket.
As we pick, my mind stretches back over every year I’ve reached for these berries. I remember going to the hedgerows with my brother, hoping we’d get enough for Mom to bake us muffins, but getting distracted by the creatures of late summer: the crickets, the spiders that weave elaborate webs in the bushes, the feathery goldenrods, the hunt for milkweed caterpillars.
And I remember growing more sophisticated in the blackberry quest, spending my teenage years with my adoptive grandfather, Sanford, who worked the farm up the road. He and I were professional pickers by then, protected by long sleeves and sun hats, with buckets strapped across our fronts, brandishing walking sticks that we used to hold away briars so we could reach the fruit. We gathered them for Ruth, my adoptive grandmother, in exchange for her pies.
That practice continued on for many years. Even after Bob and I had married and had a home of our own, Sanford and I found time to scout our favorite patches and glean the fruit. And each year, as he crossed well into his nineties, I came to feel like this time of year: August — crickets, goldenrods and blackberries, had a permanence all its own, one that faded with fall, but that restored itself every late summer.
I was 28 the last time Sanford and I went berry picking. He was 93. We ambled along a dirt path just below my house, dropping berries into our pails for an entire afternoon. As we returned to the road, he put his hand on my arm and stopped my forward motion.
“You know, this can’t go on forever.” His voice sang as he said it. There was no hint of sadness. He was deaf, so I never had to find words to respond to him. Only facial expressions. In response to his observation, I furrowed my brow in disagreement. “It can’t.” He said again. “Cuz I hafta die.” His tone was simple. Matter-of-fact. At this, I furiously shook my head, no. At the age of 28, I was certain that Sanford and the blackberries were able to defy all conventional rules about life and death. “It’s gotta happen,” he insisted. “Everything can’t stay the same.” He pushed his cane into a berry bush, added a few more fruits to his pail, then continued on down the path.
I became pregnant that fall, and over the winter, as new life in my belly grew, he began to fade away. He died just as the first blackberries of 2003 were ripening on the bushes, just as I was giving birth to Saoirse. I was so swept up in the abrupt change, I didn’t find time to mourn his passing, until the blackberries ripened again.
On this morning with Bob, I pull a bramble closer and lift a full ripe berry from the stem. Rather than dropping it in my basket, this one, like so many others, passes my lips. With my tongue I crush it on the roof of my mouth, experiencing the rush of summer sweet, the piney finish. And I ponder permanence and change.
I am remembering the years after Sanford’s passing, when I walked these roads and filled baskets with the girls, part of our radical homemaking life, foraging rather than buying, taking pleasure from the rocks and gravel beneath our feet, and delighting when we would overcome thorns to unveil a cluster of fruit. My memory of that phase was of the same timelessness as when I picked with Sanford…the same timelessness when I picked with my brother. And I mourn that timeless feeling. I mourn that sensation that August mornings are meant to be ambled through with joy — the weeds and the grass grow more slowly, yet the day still has a tendency to stretch long. And I can’t help but feel, with this new cafe that requires something of me every day – making the broth, pricing the dishes, pulling meat off of slow-cooked bones, washing vegetables, working over the numbers, placing orders, rolling out pie dough, planning menus, washing dishes, pulling cappuccinos, cleaning floors, that I’ve let some of this timelessness go. I admittedly spend fewer hours in front of a computer, but more days in the kitchen. And I wonder, have I lost that original life I envisioned? Have Bob and I surrendered our preference for slow living to the fast pace of a cafe? Have we traded freedom for money?
But I remember that last blackberry hunt with Sanford. Everything can’t stay the same. Those were his words. Bob and I chose this new path because our daughters were in love with the idea. We chose it because it would help bring the farm into the black. We chose it because we wanted people to love our town as much as we do. And on Sunday nights, after 12 hours on my feet,, when I am on my hands and knees cleaning the cafe toilet and wiping down the floors, I must repeat those reasons in my head.
Then Monday morning comes. And Bob and I drift back outside with the dogs, and we come to the blackberries. And as I push through the brambles, I remember something about myself. I have always been rushed. I have always been eager to get to the next thing on the schedule. My memories of timelessness are my own mental fiction. I am a busy person, by nature. I always have been. That’s one of my personal struggles. I must grow beyond that.
But with this cafe, this fatigue I feel on Monday morning slows me down. It lets me reach for the berries rather than look at my watch or reach for the calendar. I am reminded that timelessness is a choice. I can feel it at any moment, if I focus my mind.
These berries do have their own kind of magical permanence. Blackberries are not on the schedule. They are not on the to-do list. But on this morning, when fatigue has slowed my mind and body, where the crickets’ rhythmic chorus pulses around us, Bob and I are still free. We eat our entire breakfast while walking. We fill the basket and bring it home. For two days, while we can peaches for the winter, they sit in our refrigerator and I ponder what to do with them. I consider a pie, but they will be eaten too fast. There are far too many for muffins. Freezing them just doesn’t do them justice. Finally, on the last day of peach canning, I pull them out, pour them into a pot, and begin mashing them into jam. We will bring it to the cafe, an off-menu little gift to offer with the homemade cornbread or the camembert cheese, another taste of West Fulton for our friends and neighbors. . That way, the timelessness of blackberry season in our town will extend just a little longer this year.