Rio loves berries, especially when we’ve picked them ourselves. In Bynum, there are two such treats: the mulberries that grow above my neighbor Ollie’s storage shed, and the blackberries that burst forth in prickly bunches along the river.
We know that summer is coming by the appearance of mulberries. In tune with Southern manners, we always wait for an invitation from Ollie before we climb the ladder. Rio still doesn’t quite understand why we can’t just ask him: “I know he’d say yes, so what’s the point in waiting for him to bring it up?” It’s hard to explain the intricacies of grace.
But once we get Ollie’s offer, we climb the rickety ladder and balance on the shed’s narrow and slanted roof, filing our bowls and delighting in the fact that we’ve been quicker and wilier than the raccoons and birds. Rio likes mixing half-ripe berries with fully ripe ones — that interplay of tart and sweet.
About six weeks later the blackberries turn their deep-violet hue. To get to the blackberries, we must navigate the poison ivy that always seems to weave itself through its sweet counterpart’s vines, their leaves remarkably similar.We’ve braved thorns, chiggers, and itchy rashes in the pursuit of the perfect purple orb. We know about several patches down by the river, a few behind the old mill, and a couple along the road, set far enough back that most people probably don’t notice them. Rio and I tell no one about our secret troves, not even Annie — we’re the private tenders of a wild orchard. The only hiccup was the one time when the public weed-clearing tractor used its long claw to rip some of our most productive bushes off the side of the road just as they were reaching peak sweetness. A year later, Rio will sometimes say, “I’m still mad at that driver. Those. Weren’t. Weeds!”
There’s something supremely satisfying about picking and tasting something you’ve watched grow. During the winter, Rio and I will look at the bereft bushes and say, “It’s hard to imagine that in a few months there will be ripe fruit hanging from there.” Come July, it almost feels like we worked for that berry — all those days of patient vigil.
As a kid, I’d spend every summer along with my sister at our grandparents’ house in Connecticut, where they kept a huge garden. My grandfather would plant, tend, and pick; my grandmother would jar, freeze, and cook. I grew up eating ears of corn for dinner that my grandfather had picked that very morning.
My sister and I would help around the garden as much as we could; we both loved riding my grandfather’s lawnmower, and we would also be conscripted to pick two crops in particular: green beans and blueberries. I still remember one bean or berry going into my pail for every two that I put in my mouth. To me, there was nothing finer than a crisp green bean snapping between my teeth. For the blueberries, we’d have to contend with the wasps and yellow jackets that crowded in with us beneath the cotton netting my grandparents had placed over the rows of bushes to keep out the crows. All that bending and dodging in the humid summer heat made the berries even more delicious.
My grandfather died a few years ago at the age of 98, and my grandmother lives in a nursing home. I still visit their house, though, because my aunt and uncle now live there. The garden is gone; a neatly trimmed lawn stands in its place. But those tiny, exploding moments of joy are still in me.