Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Blackberry Traditions of Summer

Last Summer, my husband announced that he was off to a friend’s farm to pick up some wild blackberry vines to plant along the white picket fence in front of our house. I smiled to myself, picturing my three children in future years with purplish stains around their mouths and on their fingers. I kissed him goodbye and watched him load our oldest son into the truck as they set off on their adventure. Watching my husband’s ancient truck bounce down our driveway, I couldn’t help but think of another farm and other blackberry vines.

When I was a child, every Summer we would visit my grandparents’ farm in South Carolina. After retiring from his job as a magistrate, my granddad built a two-storey log house on the property that had been in his family for generations. The third of twelve children, he wasn’t at a loss for help as he and his brothers assembled the home like giant Lincoln Logs, his brothers carrying on for him even after he broke his leg falling off the roof. I can’t remember how long it took from ground breaking to moving day, but I do remember how old I was when they left the red brick house across from my great-grandparents’ home in town for the large rambling country home. I was eight years-old.

For an eight year-old, the hundred plus acre farm was Heaven on Earth. I was never sure how far the land stretched. The rolling hills of neatly planted rows of soybeans and Country Gentleman corn seemed to go on forever.

When Spring Break rolled around, we’d pile into my mother’s huge brown station wagon and make the trek north from Florida, leaving before dawn in order to arrive in time for supper. We’d arrive hungry because my grandmother was an amazing cook. There wasn’t much she didn’t know how to cook.

The morning always meant a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits, toast, and grits, with strong, black coffee for the adults and older kids and chocolate milk or orange juice for the younger kids. Afterwards, my brothers would eagerly follow my granddad out into the muddy red fields for their chance to climb aboard the tractor and make neat furrows for spring planting. My job was to follow along behind my granddad as he poked holes in the tops of the furrows for me to drop a few seeds in and cover with a little bit of the red earth.

When we returned in the Summer, I’d marvel over the tall crops that had sprung from the earth where I’d dropped a few tiny seeds just a couple of months earlier – a huge contrast from the bare muddy ground that had greeted us on our last visit. In the Summer, the trees hung thick with green leaves and ripening fruit. The split-rail fence along the driveway groaned under the heavy scuppernong vines promising the large, round, green grapes that we loved.

My granddad would leave in the morning, taking my brothers with him to check the fields, make repairs, visit his brothers’ farms. In the Summer, I didn't get to come along. They left me behind with my mother and grandmother to clean up the morning dishes, tidy the house, make beds, prepare the next meal, or start on the ever-present canning.

My grandmother would watch carefully for the first sign of my fidgeting. When it appeared, she would send me out the door with a light, woven basket and instructions to head down to the shoals and fill my basket with blackberries.

I’d race out the back door like I’d been set free from prison – the screen door banging shut behind me. I thundered across the wooden porch and down the steps, swinging my basket as I raced across the wide lawn, dominated by my grandmother’s prized weeping willow, and across the gently rolling land past the huge, dark and mysterious barn.

It felt like I’d trekked a hundred miles before I reached the cool shade of my granddad’s private woods. A shallow creek traced the hills, the trickling water providing its own form of music as the bubbles played and danced from one rock to another, making their way to Granddad’s huge fishing pond at the bottom of the hill on the other side of the road. It was here in the woods along the stream that the sweetest, juiciest blackberries grew.

There in the shadows of the woods, along the creek, the air was cooler. It was possible to stay out all day in the Summer heat without suffering from it. Those woods provided everything a child needed for a day of fun and adventure. I’d pick my way across the smooth rocks, dipping my hands in water so cold my fingers ached from it. I’d pick handfuls of plump blackberries and rinse them in the icy water before stuffing them into my mouth.

I’ll never forget those Summer blackberries. Still warm from the dappled sunshine, I’d bite into them, the tart and sweet juices exploding in my mouth, running down my chin. I’d crunch down on the abundant seeds, some getting stuck in my teeth. I’d dip a handful of water from the creek to wash away the evidence of my pilfering then I’d wander along the creek looking for a new blackberry vine to pick clean of fruit.

The tiny barbs poked and scratched my tender skin, but in time, I grew quite adept at picking blackberries without injury. I’d pass over the sour red, unripe berries for the dark purplish blackberries, so large and plump they looked too perfect to be real. They grew so abundantly there along the creek that I could eat my fill and still find enough blackberries to fill my basket – but not before I’d followed the creek down to the pond.

Where the stream passed under the road, the creek bed stretched out into a huge expanse of granite bedrock. The merry little fast-moving stream of water spilled across the gray stone, filling little pockets in the granite. Thousands of smooth rocks, perfect for skipping lay scattered about. One favorite past time was to find several and perfect my skipping technique. I’d often followed my father and uncles down to the pond for fishing, and there had always been someone happy to teach me the manly art of stone skipping across the pond’s smooth surface.

Setting my empty basket on a rock, I’d kick off my sandals and wade into the pond, on the hottest days, I’d dive in, savoring the cool, clear water on my overheated skin. Once I’d cooled off, I’d pull myself out of the pond and lie back on the wide, sun-warmed granite and let the sun dry my bathing suit and hair. By summer’s end my pale skin would have darkened to a deep brown and my brown hair would lighten to a honey blonde.

I’d stay down by the pond until my stomach would growl for something more substantial than blackberries, or until the sun would shift far to the west, casting deep purple shadows across my favorite sunning rock. Sometimes, if we had plans to go visiting, one or two of my brothers would come looking for me. An hour later, my father would follow them, because none of us children could resist the siren call of the pond on the hottest days – not even when charged with a mission.

If time permitted, I’d remember what I’d been charged with and on the way back up the hill to the big log house, I’d stop at the blackberry vines along the road and fill my grandmother’s basket before heading back. She’d smile, seeing the basket filled with berries and my granddad would comment that the vines by the shoals must not be producing well this year since it had taken me all day to fill one basket. My mother would smile, knowing I’d spent the day wandering in the woods, skipping stones and swimming in the pond. My grandmother would use the blackberries for pie or cobbler, or she’d make a syrup out of them and treat us to blackberry pancakes. At least once during our visit, she’d make blackberry jam which she would send us home with at Summer’s end.

When my husband returned with the scrawny little vines, I followed him out to the fence as he planted them.

“They need shade to really take off,” I said.
“They’ll do great in full-sun,” he assured me.
“The berries are sweeter in the shade,” I said.
“They’ll be fine,” he said.

So I held my tongue and decided to wait. A year has passed and the pitiful little plants have exploded. Tiny green berries hide among the thorns, and we’re waiting for them to swell with juice and darken to a deep rich purple. In the mean time, we’ve discovered a vast blackberry patch in our pasture with already ripe, sweet and tart blackberries.

This week, after working in the yard, taming my neglected flower garden, Dale took the cuttings down to the community burn pile and came back excited as a nine year-old with reports of bushy blackberry plants heavy with more of the ripe, luscious berries than he could pick in one day. He hooked a wagon up to our small tractor and loaded the boys inside, handed an empty plastic ice cream bucket to each and waved goodbye.

They returned a little more than an hour later with a full bucket and a wealth of stories. I smiled and took the bucket from them. Liam had been more interested in eating than picking. Patrick had been eager to do both. I have no doubt that Dale had sampled his fair share as well. As my husband handed over the bounty, he eyed the gallon bucket.

“I hope that’s enough for a cobbler,” he said.
I smiled and washed a handful of the berries, handing them to my two year-old daughter, Beth.
“Mama, do you even know how to make blackberry cobbler?” Patrick asked.
Thinking of my grandmother and blackberries I’d handed over to her, I assured him that I did indeed know how to make blackberry cobbler.
“Well, I didn’t know,” Dale said. “I’ve never seen you make cobbler before.”
“I’ve made cobbler,” I said. “Remember when Bubba brought us all the peaches?”
“Oh yeah,” Dale said, then he turned to Patrick. “Your mama knows how to make cobbler. There’s not much she doesn’t know how to cook.”

Smiling to myself, I stared out of my kitchen window at our vegetable garden and the rows of scuppernong and muscadine vines that ran along our fence, and I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother who could cook anything and the blackberries that grew along the shoals.