Berry Love

Berry Love

The scent of ripe strawberries under the hot sun, I would wear it as a perfume if I could. It is a scent that transports me back to childhood, back to my grandpa’s strawberry patch and his quiet approval.

My first memory in a strawberry patch is set under a wide blue Michigan sky, warm sun on my back, dirt under my nails, and weeds growing like wildfire. I was supposed to be picking the weeds, if I picked weeds for a week my Grandpa promised to buy  a bigwheel to replace the one I’d worn holes in. I imagined peddling down the sidewalks that looped around our neighborhood, wind in my hair. I plucked a weed and  scooped a ladybug into my cupped hand. “Grandpa look!”

Every ladybug was a wonder. “I think you are collecting more ladybugs than weeds,” he said. I kept pulling weeds and counting ladybugs with him and by  the weeks end  we went to the store to choose a new bigwheel.

In later years I labored in the strawberry patch because I liked the scent of fruit, the soft plunk of a berry into a basket, the sun kissing my arms brown, even the trickles of sweat down my neck. The small itchy hives that popped up in response to the brush of strawberry plants against bare skin were just a badge of honor. My fingers were steady, quick and able. I raced myself to fill baskets. No one was faster except my Grandpa. I smiled when he complimented me. I eagerly loaded baskets into his van to take home to my mother’s freezer. She would compliment my provision, I knew.

In later years my family moved from Michigan, my Grandpa died, and his  gardens finally filled with weeds. Whenever I returned to Michigan I  waded into the tall grasses and overgrown bushes that overshadowed his gardens  to hunt for remaining fruit. The findings were scant.

More successfully, I found nearby fruit farms and picked quarts of berries and buckets of cherries, inviting Rachel  to pick along with me.

Today Isaac and I picked strawberries. An older man led us out into his field. He smiled at Isaac and told him he could eat for free. “The berries aren’t as sweet this year because of all the rain we’ve had,” he said.

I popped a berry into my mouth. True. It was not as sweet as most fresh picked berries. But I bent my head to the task. Small hives popped up on my arms. Sweat trickled down my face, dropped to the ground. The scent of red berries under a blazing sun was strong. I dropped plump fruit into my Grandpa’s baskets. When he died I requested some of his berry baskets, stained by his harvest and laced with memories.

Isaac wove in and out of the rows of berries. “I got one,” he yelled. “I got one, I got two now, I got three!” He updated me on the status of his JMU bucket contents in excited tones.

When we went to weigh our bounty I saw that Isaac had plucked half a bucket full, a large advance on last years three berries in the bottom of his container. My Grandpa would be proud.

This afternoon I dropped the strawberries into water in small batches, then stemmed them. The burn between my thumb and nail took me back to my Grandma’s kitchen, stemming strawberries with her, stemming more on the lawn with my sister. Isaac stepped up onto a stool, unbidden, to help.

We heaped bags full of strawberries for the freezer, then sliced a large bowl full for supper. I leaned over Isaac and inhaled. Sunshine and strawberries scented his skin, a smudge of red juice on his face made me smile.

At supper, over bowls of biscuits and berries I felt linked to the earth and my family in a primal way. We could literally taste all the recent rain in the berries.  There has been too much rain this year but there has been a harvest anyway. The berries are not as sweet for all the rain but the gathering of  the berries and the memories they bring are all the sweeter for the storms and losses of the year.