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.

Late Bloomer

It’s spring, it’s sunny, it’s warm, and in the words of Stuart Smalley, I’m shoulding all over myself. This is the time of year I’ve been waiting for, right? The weather I’ve been waiting for, the time to shed off the winter blahs, the time to do all the things. This I know: I don’t feel like it. I don’t even feel like writing, but here I am. I am taking two writing classes right now and haven’t written anything I like for either one of them. I don’t like the pieces we are using as models, and I like the pieces I’m writing from the models even less. I did just take a look at the next assignment for one of the classes and the instructor began her analysis of the piece by saying “I’m not sure we’ve ever studied a narrative technique revolving around bad-temperedness” and I thought: FINALLY! Something I can get behind.

The only thing I have felt like doing is baking cake, but even cake did not go as planned this weekend. I had a custard disaster, in which I was first reminded of the important lesson “don’t multi-task when the custard is on the burner” (chai flavored scrambled egg) and then that it’s important to know the right amount of gelatin to use (chai flavored egg soup) and then that you don’t try to reheat the watery custard if you’ve already put gelatin in it (I’m not really sure what to call the result: hot chai flavored egg soup with bits of rubber cement?). Fortunately the custard was a non-critical element. I tasted all the other elements individually so I’m fairly sure they will work out together. It’s a dirty chai layer cake, so it’s coffee and chai cake, white chocolate coffee ganache, nameless coffee crunchy bits, and coffee and chai buttercream. That has to be good, or at least edible. Maybe I’ll try it out for breakfast.

I’m not really sure what to do when baking therapy, writing therapy, walking therapy, horse therapy, and even dog therapy aren’t working. The cat has her own ideas which mostly involve attacking my legs as I walk by, so I haven’t tried snuggling her (a dangerous proposition on our best days, which most certainly neither of us is having right now). I don’t feel like gardening, and anyway it’s mostly too early for that here. Debris from last year is still sheltering this year’s beneficial critters, and it’s far too early to plant most new plants. I could be digging holes for trees, but I haven’t bought the trees yet, and in my experience it’s best to wait or you just have a yard full of holes.

The full impact of the past year is still sinking in. I haven’t seen two of my kids since January of last year, and the third who lives only one state away I’ve only seen maybe four times. I am pining for them all. I complain about traveling for work but I also miss it. I don’t care for the big city but I even miss going to New York. I have been saying for years that all of my line of work can be done remotely, and I have been mostly working from home for many years, but it turns out that going to an office never and seeing zero people in person is actually too much of a good thing. I miss live music. I miss having a regular level of anxiety about regular anxiety-producing things.

I spent some time this morning walking around my property being irritated at the trees and their cheerful busyness. If I stand still by the willow or the weeping cherry I can watch the leaves and flowers unfurl, and instead of giving me hope, this annoys me. The sweet gum is suddenly popping leaves all over, and most of the maples – autumn blaze, hedge, sugar – are putting out their early pollen-makers. Good for the bees, not so good for me. Only the crimson king maple and I seem to be on the same page. I know it is healthy and that it will leaf out, and I’m sure it’s getting busy somewhere inside its bark, but for right now on the surface it is doing exactly nothing. This is my kind of tree.

For now, I will keep reminding myself that our frost-free date isn’t for five or six more weeks, and maybe I’ll stay hunkered down until it’s time for my annual mid-May ritual of planting way too many tomatoes. Some of us are productive in April, and some of us are still dormant, and that’s ok.

Valentine

I spent yesterday making mini key lime pie layer cakes, not because it was Valentine’s Day but because it is a three day weekend and I wanted lots of time for all the components and construction of these cakes which have been occupying my mind for the last month. Rose spent time installing a new shade for the deck door – one that, unlike the old one, is opaque, so that Scout can’t see the shapes of the cat or the horses through the translucent shade and therefore is less likely to launch himself at the door. Both projects have been in a state of “we’ll get to this soon,” so there was a gift-ish element of clearing the floor and table space that have been housing boxes and tools and ingredients in ready mode for some weeks. But mostly, it was just any old weekend day.

I’d say this is what Valentine’s looks like after more than 25 years, but it’s what Valentine’s has always looked like for us. We used to exchange cards, and sometimes we go out to dinner. Once I received beautiful tropical flowers at my office on February 13th with no card, and when my coworkers asked who they were from I said “I hope they are from Rose!” because it was so unlike us I thought maybe they had been misdelivered.

I met Rose at the farm where she kept her horse. I was there for an evening riding lesson. She was talking to one of the other students in my class by one of the barns, and the friend introduced us by saying “This is Rose – she’s Michael’s sister-in-law.” I was confused by this, since Linda – the woman whose family ran the farm and who taught the lessons – was married to a Michael, and I thought “Wouldn’t it be easier to say ‘Rose is Linda’s sister’?” It turned out there was another Michael, who was taking a husband class – not a class in how to be a husband, I mean, but a riding class for husbands of boarders and students at the farm. I was moderately disappointed to learn that the sister-in-law part happened because Rose was married to this Michael’s brother. So ours was not a love story that started right away.

Our riding instructor decided that a good way for us all to get out to horse shows the next spring was to buddy up with another rider with a horse at the same level so that we could have someone to show with. I remembered that Rose’s mare was, like my mare, somewhere down at the pre-green level of total beginner, and I asked for her phone number. Before I could call her, she drove up one day when I was at the farm. As she got out of her car I said “Just the woman I’ve been looking for!”

We did take our mares to shows together, and over the next three years we talked on the phone (a LOT), and we drove to the Eastern Shore to look at horses with Rose’s sister. We became friends. Friends through my last non-relationship with a guy I wasn’t quite dating, friends through starting a business together, friends through the end of Rose’s marriage, friends through buying more horses, friends through both of us realizing that something more was going on between us.

I can remember with great clarity a lot of individual moments from the whole history of our relationship: some romantic, some contentious, some funny, some heartbreaking. I couldn’t pull out a solid memory of a single Valentine’s Day (except the last time we went out to Valentine’s dinner – we came from two different places and managed to show up wearing matching outfits, right down to the shoes), but this morning I took the trash down the icy driveway, and while I’m writing this, Rose is filling the water troughs. Sometimes the best love language is to do the thing that needs to be done that the other person doesn’t feel like doing.

I don’t want to make too much of a cake metaphor, but I’m going to anyway. This particular cake has a lot of layers, and each one of them is made up of something different. It requires a lot more preparation and a lot more following of someone else’s directions than I care for. Making each component well is as critical as fitting them all together. Taking the time to make sure the whole thing holds together is a final step that’s well worth doing. And in the end, it’s both beautiful and delicious. Well, you get the idea.

Relationships are hard, and complicated. This doesn’t have anything to do with cake; it’s just true. Sometimes we forget to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes we remember to let it slide when each of us is at our absolute worst. After a lot of years, most of the relationship is in the day to day. Sometimes we remind me of the dogs, and the way they reach out with a paw to us or each other, just to make sure we’re still near. One thing I can still say: just the woman I was looking for.

Drama

Somehow it’s almost February. Earlier today I was trying to figure out if it was Wednesday or Thursday, and then I realized it’s Monday.

Dogs know how to bring the drama. Let me begin by saying that Scout is fine now. I, on the other hand, will be recuperating for a while after he gets his sutures out next week.

It started, as so many things do, with dog vomit. Around the middle of the first week in January – no wonder I can’t figure out where January went – Scout started vomiting. And then he stopped eating. I’ll leave out all the graphic details but over a week and a half it involved a trip to the dog ER, a trip to the regular vet, another trip to the regular vet, a trip to a different dog ER, surgery, and a couple nights in the dog hospital. It didn’t really start with dog vomit, I guess – it started with the dog eating something he had no business eating, which eventually needed to be removed, hence all the other things.

Anyway, he’s home now, he’s fine, he’s off all his meds, he’s eating, his incision looks great, he’s acting like himself. All good news!

And yet. I AM SO TIRED. I’m sure it’s not just because of the dog-related anxiety, and more that all my free-floating anxiety from the last year got a focal point during the dog-related anxiety. At first I was sleeping with one ear open to listen for Scout asking to go out, and taking him out in the middle of the night when needed. Which was probably once, maybe twice, but I didn’t want to miss hearing him. I’m not sure I can exactly call it progress when this turned into me going downstairs once an hour to make sure he was not dead. Full disclosure: I can make the vomiting and the not eating and the surgery sound scary, and it was scary to me, but he never really acted that sick. The likelihood of him dropping dead was pretty minuscule. But the worry about it was real, and the lack of sleep was even more real.

I have two primary go-to activities for major stress: eating and baking. It’s been a baking kind of weekend. Yesterday, in between baking three loaves of two different kinds of bread, I told Rose that I wanted to do nothing but bake for about a week. I’ve been going to sleep reading recipes for complicated layer cakes, and waking up with plans for my own recipes which might be really bad ideas. Then again, the actual cookbook I’m reading in bed has things like green curry banana cake, and I’m not sure I can do much worse than that. It didn’t even occur to me until today – Thursday? Wednesday? – that my inability to think about much besides baking is stress related. In related obliviousness, it hadn’t occurred to me that the anxiety about the dog was super sized because of all the general anxiety I’ve been trying to pretend I haven’t been feeling.

I’m happy to report that even though my brain is full of fog, I can still bake bread. True, one of the loaves bears no resemblance to the shape it is supposed to have, but it has all the right ingredients, it’s baked well, and it’s delicious. It has cheese in it, which may be cheating (of course it’s delicious!), but still. The other two loaves look perfect. But about the time I was ending my yoga practice this evening and realized that during savasana I was doing a little supine dance to the music, I decided that I don’t care so much about the form of things right now. Including, apparently, this blog post. Hug your dogs, keep them from eating their toys, bake bread and cake and enjoy it even if it’s weird, and dance even when you’re supposed to be doing corpse pose. Those are my lessons from January, if that’s even what month it is.