Steamy heat rising from the tall grass. Yellow jackets at my ankles. Thorns ripping the skin on my hands and arms.
These are my childhood memories of berry picking.
I hated it.
Picking berries was a summer chore in our family, during that small window when blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and chokecherries ripened in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. I grew up on homemade jam sealed with wax lids, one of the ways our mother saved money with eight kids to feed.
It was forced on me. It left me hot, sticky and, sometimes, bloody. So why do I find myself wandering the fields on our property every couple of days through late July and early August, reaching into webs of thorns, plucking plump blackberries from bushes?
Am I becoming my mother?
I have spent a lifetime fighting that possibility.
I loved my mother and I admired her on many levels, but we never really got along. I won’t go into the details, but we could not spend more than twenty-four hours together without breaking into a full-blown argument, even though we talked easily and comfortably on the phone at least once a week.
We drove each other crazy.
I grew up on stories of her upbringing in Nazi Germany, where she was taken from her family and made to work in people’s homes, like many German kids during that era. The Nazis claimed they were protecting city children from potential bombings. It just so happened there were Nazis willing to take them in who needed 11-year-old housekeepers and babysitters.
From her tales, I gathered that a love of nature was her coping mechanism. Unfortunately, it often lured her on unauthorized journeys from her assigned homes, which led to reassignment after reassignment after reassignment. She was labeled a troublemaker, a title she accepted with pride. The need for a particular flower or a certain view was that great.
That craving stayed with her into adulthood and got her into plenty of messes, like the time she tried to drive up Owl’s Head Mountain with a bunch of us in the vehicle, and then couldn’t turn the station wagon around when the rough road narrowed and ended in an area too crowded with trees to even open the doors.
That was mom.
I have always loved nature, but in different, safer ways. I grew up hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and swimming, and continued to pursue those activities later in life. But since we moved to the hills of North Central Pennsylvania ten years ago, I have felt a different kind of pull from the fields, the woods and the water.
It’s a psychological craving that demands satisfaction.
My walks along the trails my husband cleared on our property center me, especially now during all the craziness of the pandemic. I walk slowly, observing the little things – the various languages of the birds, the array of insects and the assortment of plant life, all while noting the blooming seasons of each kind of wildflower. I often take photos, which I enjoy sharing with others on social media.
But when I first saw those plump, dark-purple berries clinging to bushes in clusters along the trails, I felt a new surge of excitement. I immediately rushed home to get a plastic bowl. I covered my clothes and skin in Deep Woods Off, pushed through thorns with bare legs and scraped my hands pulling off berries that were deep among the branches.
What was I doing? Was I becoming my mother?
I do not have the time or the patience to pick quart after quart after quart of berries and devote days at a time to making them into jam. I never force my children to pick with me for hours at a time. I barely gather more than a bowlful from each picking.
It excites me because I love that the land gives me something back. I don’t even have to ask. I love the act of foraging. I love the sweetness of the blackberries even though they leave tiny seeds between my teeth. I love the thought that we could live off the land if ever we had to.
Even though I am not my mother, my walks and my blackberry obsession have brought me closer to her. I have developed a better understanding of the woman who was born a rebel and left everything she knew behind for new adventures in America with a U.S. soldier she had met, and then married after only a few months of courtship.
Nature was her solace while she raised eight kids with a man who eventually left her for his high school sweetheart. It was a connection to her childhood and her home country, a way of coping when she felt out of control. It was something familiar in a world full of uncertainty.
With every berry I pick, I am reminded of my mother, who passed away four years ago at 87 years old. But the memories are not of sweat, stings and bloody scratches. Instead, I am reminded of her determination and inner strength, the drive that fueled her through nursing school in her 40s after her marriage failed, that kept her working until age 71, that earned her retirement with a house of her own and a little money stashed away.
I am reminded of the little girl who slipped out through the windows of strangers’ homes to pick flowers—symbols of beauty in a time of darkness—the little girl who was willing to risk anything for freedom and adventure, the life she craved and deserved.
So, no, berry picking does not make me into my mother. It brings the best of her alive again for me.