Berry Season

The blueberries are ripening already, which seems early to me – they started before it was even officially summer. Fruit in the garden is still something of a mystery to me even after twenty years of blueberries, a period of strawberries, and a yearly wild crop of wineberries.

Planting the vegetable garden was an annual event in my childhood. Compared to my current several acres of land, our yard in the city was a postage stamp, but when my father had the back porch stairs redone as a spiral staircase that didn’t extend as far into the yard as the previous straight stairway, it was like we had a whole farm back there. We would drive out to Serio’s, a garden center way out in the country past Rockville (in Olney, which now more or less a suburb of DC), and my parents would buy seeds and plants and Miracle Gro. When my oldest sister was in junior high, so I was six or seven, she went with her dance class to Syracuse and I spent some time puzzling over where they would be dancing and, more to the point since they were going for several days, where they could sleep at the garden center.

My clearest memory of the garden planting is of my mother mixing up the magic blue liquid to sprinkle on the tomato plants. At one point my parents planted strawberries, but I don’t remember them lasting for long. When the house next door changed hands, the new neighbors replaced the chain link fence with a taller wooden privacy fence and perhaps it shaded the strawberry patch too much – my vague memory is they were planted right up against the fence. I doubt I was sorry to see them go, as I was not much of a berry eater as a child. Berries had seeds, which went against my fondness for single-textured foods. Blueberries also fell in the same category as cherry tomatoes: there was always the possibility that a fine looking exterior housed a fruit that had gone bad from the inside and was just waiting to detonate when you bit into it.

Blackberries were my first berry love. I still associate them with late July and early August, the North Carolina mountains, and camp overnights. The camp I went to from the summer after sixth grade through almost all of high school was my favorite place. The blackberries were not a huge part of my time there, but we sometimes went out on overnights, my favorites being when we rode the horses out to the big pastures up the hill, turned the horses out, and slept under the stars. I have no memory of tents, and I do have memories of being woken up by being rained on, so I think all we took was sleeping bags, flashlights, and food. Food for any kind of camp trip was the most basic kid sustenance: white bread, peanut butter and jelly, bologna and American cheese and yellow mustard, KoolAid. For overnights we also took Bisquick, and we managed something I believe we called doughboys: a moldable preparation of the Bisquick surrounding blackberries we had just picked from the wooded edges of the pastures, all wrapped around a stick and cooked over the fire like a s’more. Like s’mores, there was always a chance your doughboy would fall into the flames, but it was worth the effort, even with the potential for charred bits and the need to pick stick splinters out of your breakfast. We have a few blackberry plants here now. They don’t bear much fruit these days, and the few berries that are getting started now won’t be ready for some time, but a single glorious berry can still send me right back to those summer mornings.

One of our first garden beds when we moved here had blueberries on two sides, asparagus in the middle, and strawberries in the front and crawling under everything else. I was particularly astonished by the strawberries each time they bore fruit, as I still think of strawberries as a thing you can only buy at the grocery store. Even farmers market strawberries don’t seem like the kind of thing just anybody should be able to grow at home, but grow them we did. That bed has always gotten a little wild, and over the years, the asparagus and strawberries died out. We have mock strawberries in that bed and pretty much everywhere else on our property. They look pretty but I’ve never tried to taste one. I find it suspicious that I never see any of our plentiful wildlife eating the mock strawberries, though they were certainly fond enough of taking bites out of our cultivated strawberries. If I ever see any true wild strawberries I will be delighted to try them, but I think I’ll stick to admiring the mocks with my eyes.

For the first twenty years we lived here I called the berries out back wild raspberries, and I suppose technically they are, but I learned last year that they are known as wineberries. They are even prettier than the mock strawberries, and I know for sure they are not only edible but delicious. Like any kind of raspberry they are delicate. When I pick them I always want a large flat pan so I won’t squash any, but I always take a standard bowl or bag instead. I don’t serve them in any way where their form matters, but they are so lovely I just want to treat them gently.

The blueberries, though. Our original blueberries have continued to grow, and we have added more bushes as other things have died out and made room in that bed.

My first experience enjoying blueberries – outside of reading Blueberries for Sal – was at my great-half-uncle’s house in New Hampshire. Going to visit Uncle Richard with our maternal grandmother (my grandfather was Richard’s half brother) was a bit of a rite of passage for me and my sisters in our high school years. Each of us in turn made the trip, flying to Boston and then taking the bus to Meredith or Concord where Uncle Richard would pick us up. Time in New Hampshire mostly consisted of reading, swimming, and hiking to the lake. Blueberry picking was always on the agenda: wild high bush blueberries, small and the perfect mix of sweet and tart. Uncle Richard taught me to make blueberry pie, which I love but have hardly ever made outside of his house. Grocery store berries were just never the same, and with our own berries I have made blueberry cakes, blueberry muffins, blueberry scones, blueberry smoothies, but not very often blueberry pie. I can’t say never, but I used fancier recipes than Uncle Richard’s oleo crust and just plain blueberries dusted with flour and sugar.

Richard was a relative I met in my mid-teens and saw for the last time when I was in my mid-twenties, though he lived a lot of years beyond that. My connection with him was mainly through my grandmother, who died when I was twenty, and then my aunt, who died five years before Richard. He was born in 1923, he was in the army in the 1940s, and he taught high school for forty years. We all long suspected he was gay, but it wasn’t till he was eighty that he had his first out relationship with a man, who remained his partner for the last seventeen years of his life.

Berry season is also Pride season. I’m not a big Pride celebrator myself, but it is a time of year when I think about how much things have changed in my lifetime – even in the nearly thirty years of my relationship with Rose – and I think about how unfathomable being out and partnered and content was for someone like Richard for most of his life, and how glad I am that he still got to have all of that in his lifetime. The years I saw him actively were the years of my own coming out – in fact, it was to his house in New Hampshire that I retreated when I thought I was losing my mind, before I realized that actually, I was just gay. We didn’t talk about it any more than we talked about his orientation or relationships, but somehow I knew where to go to feel ok for a little while. I’m making blueberry tarts today, not blueberry pie, and I’m sure Richard would understand why I am toasting him today with blueberries, love, and gratitude.

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