The Choicest Berries

"Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”  ~Anne Frank

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It was our 45th wedding anniversary.  My husband John & I generally mark the day with little fanfare. Often it is just a dinner out or a special meal at home.  However, there has been such upheaval in our lives with a recent move and a trip overseas that even an evening out seemed too much to plan.  So we decided to spend a quiet weekend at our little “away house” in east Tennessee.  A dinner invitation came later in the week and sharing a meal with close friends on the mountain seemed a perfect way to celebrate our year of change.  However, the day itself remained unplanned, and not surprisingly we both had different ideas about how it should be spent.  

John was keen to work outside and tame the wild undergrowth near the house. He has a healthy fear of tick borne illnesses and a deep respect for snakes so clearing the brush was his top priority.  I, on the other hand, set my sights on a bike ride in nearby Sewanee and a stop at a local farm to pick blueberries.  The berries would only be in season for a few more weeks so berry picking seemed just as urgent to me. As we talked about our plans, John thought it would be possible to incorporate both our wishes into the day’s agenda.  However, it would necessitate an early start. So we made a tentative plan to roll out early, ride bikes, pick berries, and return midday for his yard work. Unfortunately, a late supper the night before and a bottle of red wine meant an early start would not happen as planned. 

Admittedly, I was the last to arise, but neither one of us seemed to be moving quickly that morning.  As we ate breakfast, we discussed our options.  It became apparent that doing both the bike ride and the outside chores would not be possible.  Frustrated that John was not willing to forgo the yard work, I finally said, “Well why don’t you do what you want to do and I’ll do what I want to do?”  It was the sort of cryptic statement my mother might have said to my father. I got up from the table hoping John would figure it out as my Dad often did, but he did not. John started to clean up the dishes, but I brushed him off with anger and disappointment simmering below the surface.  

Growing up, I learned along with the rest of my family to interpret my mother’s silences by her actions.  My father knew that when Mom slammed the cabinet doors, she did not want to cook that evening.  When she retreated to the ironing board with a juice glass full of white wine, my sisters and I knew to leave her alone. My mother often told the story of one day being so fed up with my sisters and I, that she stormed out of the house leaving us in the care of the housekeeper.  My little sister, Annie, asked her where she was going and mom retorted, “I don’t know!”  When she returned Annie asked, “Did you know where you were when you got there?”  As a young mother, I laughed sympathetically whenever Mom told the story.  Yet, as a child my mother’s stony silences often left me feeling untethered. When I married, I promised myself that I would speak my mind and say what I wanted. There would be no mysterious actions for John or my children to interpret or figure out. 

Yet, on this particular Saturday morning, I did not know what I wanted. As I huffed around the house close to tears, I finally realized it wasn’t the bike ride or berry picking I cared about.  I wanted John to want to be with me.  Yet, I was too proud to say it out loud.  So, I left the house fuming in silence just as my mother might have done.  I headed for the blueberry farm filled with spite.  As the car grumbled on the gravel road, I almost turned around a couple of times, but I ignored these urges towards compromise.  Self righteous pride propelled me down the highway leaving John and my dashed hopes behind.

When I reached the entrance to the Walling farm, the winding road slowed my pace and calmed me down. As I pulled into the parking spaces near the stand, I was immediately greeted by two German Shepherds.  Jack, the younger of the two gently gnawed on my proffered hand and warmly welcomed me.  Judy Walling waved from the shade of her stand and offered me a basket.  After a few pleasantries, she suggested I start at the top of the hill, because they “hadn’t had many pickers this season.”  She lamented about the rain as well and urged me to discard any swollen or cracked berries, “They won’t be sweet and you don’t want to waste your money on berries you can’t eat.”   I noted her face seemed more farm weary this year as she walked with me towards the rows of bushes.  As I looked for a place to start in the wild tangle of branches,  Judy commented that she’d been up since 4:00 that morning helping Jerry, her husband, get ready for the market.  As she left me to start picking, I thought how much harder her life seemed than mine.  I felt a tinge of guilt for thinking my troubles were so burdensome. 

I suppose some might think blueberry picking is a tedious task, but I find it meditative.  I gently tugged on the ripe berries and let them fall into my hand. Then, as Judy suggested, I examined them before I dropped them in my basket.  I let the cracked and rain swollen ones slip through my fingers and fall to the ground. Occasionally, I paused to appreciate the breeze that passed under the eaves of my hat. It cooled me when there was no shade.  Jack hung with me for a bit, but he, too, seemed to know that I needed to be alone and soon slipped away.

I was working though the second row when suddenly a butterfly swooped by.  I often think of my mother when I see butterflies, but this one flew with such intensity and purpose that it startled me at first.  I wonder now if maybe Mom had an urgent message for me.  I began to think of how kind and friendly she was to friend and stranger alike. So many people found her charming as she showed an eager interest in anyone who crossed her path. I think I have found the same ease with people by following her gracious example.  I began to think of all the wonderful ways my mother showed me how to be a woman in this world. My mother was also curious, intelligent, appreciative, fun loving, devoted, and if need be feisty.  So many of her traits are worth emulating, but there were a few that do not serve me or my marriage well. 

As the fruit accumulated in my basket, the last of my anger fell away.  Like the cracked and rain swollen berries, my bitter feelings were of no use to me and there was no need to take them home.  It was time to go,  I ambled over to the stand to pay for my berries.  Jerry had returned from the market and weighed them for me.  I had picked two and a half pounds.  As I looked down at the bounty filling the cardboard lid, I thought of all the sweetness I would bring home and the bitterness I chose to leave behind. It was a good day and a very happy anniversary.   ~C.Hause