Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rituals of Summers Past and Present

Yesterday I arose, by the dawn's early light, feeling better than I had for some time. I looked out the window at the day breaking across the world, and thought, "Blackberries! We should go pick blackberries."

I knew where there were blackberries. They were growing all along the pecan orchard path where I like to take my morning walks, I haven't walked there for a few weeks now, but when I last did they were blooming lavishly, which could only mean one thing.

I slipped into the hall and called the natives from their beds, "Get up, y'all. Let's go pick blackberries!"
They stirred, lazily, luxuriously, clearly in summer vacation mode. And presently emerged, one by one, barefoot, groggy, mildly interested in the promise of a variation in the routine.

We collected our vessels and piled in the car, anxious to beat the sun.

Blackberry picking is a rite of summer. When I was quite young and our family lived in the tidewater region of North Carolina, we would leave the little yellow cinder block house we called home one summer morning a year to go pick blackberries. My siblings and I would line up on the tailgate of the old green Wagoneer, legs dangling, and Mother would drive. We'd each have our container for picking into and a stick to drag on the road behind us to make patterns in the deep, fine, black, Carolina dirt. We younger ones would have the arm of an older one around us to keep us where we belonged, and off we'd go in search of blackberries. I can remember the happy excitement swirling all through me as if it were yesterday. I am sure the arm around me was just exactly necessary.

We would pick enough for one pie, I remember my mother saying. They were not that plentiful apparently. But we all picked until we had enough, there along the roadside above the canal, under the punishing southern sun and then we'd pile back onto the tailgate, in like fashion as we had arrived, and head back home, trailing our sticks in the dirt road, in anticipation of the matchless pie. Mother could make a pie, I tell you.

The Chief has his blackberry picking memories too. And they include quite a few more blackberries than mine do. Subsequently, his memories are a lot hotter and sweatier I suspect...but still, at this distance at least, they are apparently quite sweet. He picked two gallons of them himself at one time. He and his siblings sold them to their parents for 25 cents a quart, he thinks.
"I still like to pick blackberries" He said this morning in fond revery.

There is something about it. It is an entirely uncomfortable and miserable endeavor. And altogether addicting. The natives and I eased from the blacktop into the dappled morning shade that the orchard trees provide. Windows down, eyes peeled.

"There's some!" I said.
"But there are more farther down." Regan replied.
She knew. They had picked here before, she and her fellow natives. So we rolled slowly on in.
Most of them were still red, but here and there were patches of ebony orbs. We stopped at a promising looking place and she and I commenced to picking. The littlest natives ran further down the trail in search of  "better spots".

The morning was so sweet, the promise of the heat to come lay just beyond, but right now it was perfect.  Blackberries dropped, "boink", "boink", "boink", until the bottoms of our containers were covered, and then there was no more noise as layer was added to glistening layer.

The sun rose higher. The briers tore at our limbs and clothes. Now and then one would lodge and remain and we'd stop to extract it. Bees buzzed. We sidestepped gigantic fire ant hills.
The sun rose higher. Sweat dripped. And on we picked, moving along the road slowly, forever tantalized by the berry beyond.

We'd eye our accumulation now and then, and figure how many pies we could make, or cobblers or muffins. The sun rose higher still,  and there was nothing fun about it anymore. The littlest brave spilled his twice and was fast losing enthusiasm.

But there were always just a few more. And always just a little more space in the container to fit another one, and another. And then another. But at some point they started falling off as much as they stayed on and it became apparent that it was time to quit. So we picked one more. And then that one...

That's the way it is with blackberries.

And then we piled into the car, crawled out the orchard  lane and eased onto the blacktop. Hot. Tired. Scratched. Happy.

We went up to the store for a Powerade. The natives waited in the car while I went in and chose one out of the case. Melon. And we all shared it. And shared it again.

I suppose the cashier thought I looked a little bedraggled for that time of the morning, but I didn't really care.
We had blackberries.