Finding mom in a field full of berries

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?

No.

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.

Perspective: mother vs. mother-in-law

My mother and my mother-in-law both read the same book recently, a gift from me.
A New York Times best seller.
Both left the same message on my answering machine:
“I need to talk to you about this book.”
I had just started the novel and had not yet formed an opinion.
“I couldn’t even finish the last chapter,” my mother said. “It just wasn’t real.”
My mother was disappointed by what she felt was an exaggerated plot with exaggerated characters. The main character, a 12-year-old girl, suffers emotionally after the death of her mother and abandonment by her father. My mother didn’t find the traumas to be all that traumatic. She didn’t find the resolution all that satisfying.
Great, I thought.
The author is a friend of mine.
What if I feel the same way?
Would I be able to face her?
Then I returned my mother-in-law’s call.
My mother-in-law, a woman known for guarding her emotions, could barely contain her excitement.
She loved it.
She even cried when she read it.
“I never cry when I read a book,” she said.
I was baffled.
Such intense, polar-opposite emotions from two women who are only a year apart in age. Why? I mentioned the conflicting reactions to my mother-in-law. She wasn’t at all surprised. My mother, she explained, has an entirely different perspective on suffering.
Here I am. A writer, a journalist, someone who should understand audience.
And she was right.
I had missed it.
The problem is that I am also a daughter, and daughters can’t always sympathize with the children their parents once were because we are naturally selfish. We want to be emotionally cuddled when we hit bumps on the road, to become objects of our parents’ sympathy, recipients of their wisened advice.
We don’t want to see that our parents are still vulnerable themselves, even as adults. We don’t want to deal with their unresolved issues because we want them to help us resolve our own. So, sometimes, we are unintentionally blind.
Of course it wasn’t real for her.
My mother grew up in Germany during World War II. Her father fled to Romania to escape recruitment in the Nazi army. She was taken from her family at 10 years old and sent to Youth Camps. From there, she was placed in people’s homes, where she worked for her keep.
Her siblings were also taken away.
She saw her mother only occassionally.
She has told stories of beatings and hunger and loneliness, but she rarely goes into great detail. Instead, she often recounts her childhood with stories of her youthful rebellion. How she sneaked out windows to pick flowers, how she refused to stay in bed when sick, how she wandered through old castles and played imaginerary games.
If only some rich great aunt had swept her up at 12 years old and gently placed her in a mansion-of-a-home with a private bathroom for each bedroom, a maid who adored her and all the clothes and delicious food she could imagine. How could someone so lucky possibly be suffering to the extent that the main character suffers?
I picked up the novel a few days ago and started reading it with a new curiousity. The writing is beautiful. The author worked her entire life as a different kind of artist and her talents carry into her writing. The images she paints with her words stir all the senses. I see, feel, taste, smell and hear when I read. The experience is exhillerating.
But at the same time, I am guarded.
I am aware of my mother’s perspective even as I am drawn in by this young girl’s plight.
I feel sympathy for the girl, not because her situation is so horrible, but because of the way she endures it and because of who she is, the way the author has drawn her. I feel joy with her, not because she landed in a wealthy home with lots of love, but because of the way these unique and charming characters surround her and pull her out among them.
My mother’s perspective and my mother-in-law’s observations dimished my expectations of the novel … in a good way. They reminded me to tear down my own psychological defenses, to read beyond the literal plot and to focus instead the author’s portrayals and resulting portrait of human nature, of the nature of community.
And I got something even better out of it, better than I could have imagined.
The novel, and this experience with it, brought me one step closer to understanding my own mother.