By Julie Fay
Illustrations by Michele Tremaine
It’s hot. The dusty grass tickles my legs as I follow my father up the hillside. Bugs buzz in the air. The old metal peanut butter cans clink against our legs as we climb.
I hate the heat and the sun and the dust. I hate the bugs. I especially hate the briars that scratch my arms and legs. But I like blackberries, so I follow my father.
We find a generous patch of bushes and greedily start picking. Some berries aren’t quite ready; others are so ripe and heavy they drop into our hands as soon as we touch them. We have to put them in our peanut butter can buckets gently so they don’t get smushed. The bees aren’t happy with us taking the sweetness away, and they buzz around my head. Dad tells me to just keep picking.
Our buckets are soon filled to the brim. We start down the hill, trying to keep our feet on the ground and the prize in our pails. I slip and grab onto a sapling for support. A few berries tumble out of my bucket and get lost in the weeds. I’m glad when I see my grandmother’s front porch.
We come in through the screen door to the coolness of the house and show my mom and grandma the many fruits of our labor. “There’s lots more up there,” Dad says, already heading for the door. “Come on, let’s go.”
I’m hot and itchy from the grass and the scratches and the bugs. “I don’t wanna go,” I tell him.
“Come on!” he urges. I’d much rather stay and talk with Grandma, and maybe sneak one of her sugar cookies from the stoneware jar on the counter and some lemonade from the icebox.
“No,” I whine.
I’m relieved when Dad says he’ll just go by himself.
Mom, Grandma and I carefully shake some berries out onto white paper plates and begin looking them over. Most are good, but sometimes we find a half-eaten one. Once in a while a little gray-brown spider walks across the paper plate. I’m not squeamish about squishing it, as long as I have a paper towel.
Dad comes back with pailful after pailful. We keep picking through them with purple fingers. My grandmother sets some berries aside and sugars them, to have over ice cream for dessert that night. Mom sterilizes the canning jars, and the kitchen becomes a syrupy-sweet sauna. The bottles of Certo are opened, cups of sugar are measured, and the jam bubbles away on the stove.
By the time Dad changes his clothes and is sitting on the metal lawn chair with a glass of sun tea, there are 18 jars of jam standing on their heads on the white linen towel. We’ll have to turn them right-side-up in a little while. Mom says this helps make a good seal.
Grandma makes pies and blackberry cobbler, and we gobble them up with vanilla ice cream, or sometimes milk poured over the cobbler. Leftover pie crust is cut into little circles, baked and spread with fresh jam for a snack. We freeze some berries for more pies at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I miss my grandma. I miss her so much I’d now gladly go up on the hill in the heat and the dust and pick buckets of berries to have a taste of her cobbler again. I’d put up with the flies and bees if we could sit at the drop-leaf oak table with purple-soaked paper plates in front of us. I’d even sterilize the jam jars.
Those childhood days are now long past, but I’ll never forget those tasty treats in summer’s prickly heat.
Julie Fay writes from her home in Milton, Massachusetts, which she shares with her husband, Earl, and their three young children. When she’s not writing, she can be found teaching voice and piano, singing at area churches or driving her children around. She muses on family, writing, music, autism and endless dieting in her blog (juliefaysblog.blogspot.com).
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