It’s so hot on the ravine – really hot. Mom and I decided that it’s just too hot to garden. Well, Mom doesn’t garden; Daddy gardens. That doesn’t stop her from deciding things like that.
Last week, we went to Murfreesboro, about 30 miles away, to pick up a new arbor for the gardens. Mom loves a little road trip; she often quotes Dad’s dad to describe herself and her sisters-in-law, “Want to go? Any of these girls are ready when there’s a go on hand!”
“Will we have lunch while we’re out?” she asked.
“I suppose so.”
“Well, I’d like to find a new pair of black capris.”
“Okay, we’ll go to Kohl’s.”
“And have lunch?”
“Yes, we’ll have lunch.”
The arbor was out on a country road in a subdivision of new homes. It made me smile, the lengths some gardener-homeowners had taken to make the homes look established, and older. My seller had installed trellises and arbors and little ponds. It didn’t all “hang together,” but the effort was appreciable and the arbor I was purchasing had been replaced by a taller and thicker model. The gracious owner helped me load my new garden addition into the pickup truck and we tied it down and headed back down the rural road.
“Mom, look,” I said. “Queen Anne’s lace. Are those blue things what you’d call chickory?”
“We always called that wild bachelor buttons. Oh look, there’s a lot of black-eyed susans, too. We should get some.”
So I stopped by the road and parked the truck and pulled up wildflowers to tuck into the bank of the ravine, not knowing if we could keep them alive but imagining a bank full of white, blue, gold, and yellow next year.
“I had some foxglove I dug up on the Chestnut Mound Road last year but I don’t think any of it is left now,” Mom offered as I pulled back onto the road, just glad to be back in the air conditioning of the Nissan. “I guess I miss the wildflowers up there at the farm.”
Suddenly I felt the heat of the Smith County farmland and the sun on the hills and the shade of the box elder tree. I knew what she missed…
“Blackberries, Mom. Do you think there’ll be many blackberries this year?” And I remembered a letter I wrote to Mom years ago. It was more of a poem, and too sentimental, and Mom doesn’t go for the overly sappy – and I wound up giving it to her for Mother’s Day.
Today I opened a fresh jar of blackberry jam. The sticker you put on the lid read “BB Jam 1985.” I chose one perfect berry resting just on the top, and when the spoon left it on my waiting tongue, I thought of you.
The yellow in my kitchen becomes hot sunshine on summer hills. I breathe in the smell of cedar trees, rocks, jimsom-weed, Queen Anne’s lace, and the barn at the heart of the hollow below. Coil oil, warmed by the sun, drifts to my face from my ankles and wrists. Some grandma or grandpa, from a long time ago, told us it would ward off ticks and chiggers.
I feel my hand reach into the bending briars, my long-sleeved shirt snagging in the intended protection. My eyes follow rounded fingers, pinky in air, plucking one, two, three berries and then cupping them to my palm until it’s full enough to deposit them gently into the waiting lard bucket swinging from my arm. I pause to peer inside to see if I have yet covered the boom and I hear you say, “Come on, Sis, we have to get at least two gallons. Are you looking out for snakes?”
I glance to the ground in quick response as we move from briar to briar, and I see my Pa’s overalls tucked into oversized boots. I take on patch after patch, collecting purple-black stains on my fingers, rips in my shirt, pricks to my skin – and chiggers.
And every year, you tell me that it takes a cup of sugar for every cup of berries to make really good jam… that some people use pectin but we’ve never needed any…and that this winter when there’s a snow on the ground, won’t WE be glad we picked these old blackberries.
Mama, when I am old and you are gone and I miss you, I will search for a jar of your blackberry jam. I will find that perfect berry resting on the top, and while my mouth – and eyes – water, I will think only of you and warm sunshine on summer hills.