Late-season blackberries are like the denizens of a well-worn tavern: this one’s dry as an old raisin, that one’s pretty but dusted with mold; this one is big but refuses to mature, that one is sweet but too soft, turning to jam in your hand.
Picking blackberries after Labor Day is indeed labor.
And yet I find it compulsively absorbing.
I wade in the shallows at the edge of Lake Washington, scanning, searching, occasionally finding. I work my way along the shoreline, a plastic bag in my sticky purple hand, my water sandals nested in mud. The sun is hot on my back. I’m concentrating so hard you’d think I was taking the Blackberry SATs.
Often, I go berry picking with the goal of Thinking about something that needs thinking about: for example, should I let go of the dream of a traditional publisher for my memoir and try a different route? Or, on a more immediate note, how soon can I text my son, who is 3,000 miles away and in the throes of mono, and ask him if he’s feeling any better today?
But when I step into the water and begin my hunt for the plumpest, darkest berries, I stop thinking. I go into a sort of trance state in which the only thing that matters is: where’s the next one? Is it there, on that cluster? No: they look ready, but they’re not. Or there, on the next branch? No: those ones should have been picked last week. Mold has crept over them, like a white shadow.
I taste as I go: one is vinegar, one’s wine, one’s raisiny. One out of ten, aahh!—is meltingly sweet.
The late ripeners.
Is that what I am?
I hope so.
It would have been thrilling to be a published author in my twenties, or thirties, or forties. But I wasn’t. I did other things: wrote news stories, made documentary films, raised children.
Now, I’m ripening as a writer and trying hard to do it right: Study. Practice. Water and sun when I need it. Well-nourished roots. Space to stretch and put out green leaves, flowers and, finally, fruit. Which will need to picked at the right time and prepared and consumed in the best way: simply raw? Baked in a pie? Cooked into a jam?
When I was about 12, my grandparents bought a beach house near Bremerton—an unglamorous but perfect spot, just a few miles from the ferry dock. To get to it, we drove to the end of a city street and then down a long dirt road through a forested ravine loaded with blackberries.
When we stayed there for the first time with my mom, she was newly divorced and this was a new experience: not only because it was just us kids and her, but because we had rarely in our lives gone to stay anywhere overnight with our parents.
Mom was a Montana girl who knew more about woods than she did about beaches. She breathed in, deeply, joyfully, at the sight and smell of the ripe berries. She urged us to pick as many as we could, promising pies and cobblers and jars of jam.
Jam! We were skeptical. Night after night, our mother cranked out dinner for six children, but she had never done anything as homespun as make jam.
We came home that afternoon with buckets of berries, the memory of which makes the tiny bags I pick these days look even tinier and more pathetic.
Mom had been to the store. The kitchen counters were covered with jars, lids, paraffin and sugar. Her face flushed as she leaned over a pot of boiling water, fishing the jars out with barbecue tongs, explaining that she was “sterilizing” them. She looked younger than she had in months, almost childlike. Yet, oddly, she seemed to know what she was doing.
“Grandma used to make jam all the time,” she explained. “You poor things don’t even know how good this is going to taste.”
We didn’t. It was the age of Smucker’s and Welch’s. Even mothers who weren’t divorced and back in college, like our mom, did not make jam, at least not any I knew.
And she was right: homemade blackberry jam tasted nothing like what we bought at the store. It tasted like summer. It tasted like sun and rain and the woods and the beach.
And when I taste a blackberry now, I taste that jam, and I remember the ripening, the awakening, of my mom in the middle of her life. I think of what she must have felt, to be able to say: “Today, we are making jam and lots of it, because that is what I want to do and there’s no one here who’s going to try to talk me out of it!”
I haven’t made jam as an adult. I consider it a failing, that I didn’t do it when my own children were young. But at least I can call myself a late-blooming berry picker, one who specializes in finding the late-ripening fruit: the September berries.
And I won’t give that up.
And I won’t give up trying to be one myself: a late ripener.
It’s a way to honor my mother, whose mid-life ripening was thwarted, eventually, by younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
After my mother got her mid-life college degree, she became a teacher. In one of her school yearbooks, the teachers all had favorite quotes under their photos. She chose the last two lines of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress:” Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.
I’m taking notes, Mom. Taking notes and picking berries.