Summers Black Treasure
by Vivian I. Zumstein
I gape in disbelief at the small basket of berries in the grocery store.
Blackberries from Washington State
$2.19, the label reads.
Washington State: land of my childhood with its majestic Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges, its shimmering Puget Sound and, yes, even its relentless gray days. All these thoughts were conjured up by the sight of ripe, plump blackberries nestled in a tiny green cardboard box.
But the cost! Over $2 for berries from a plant that provided bucketsful of free fruit in my youth? Outrageous.
I grew up in the 1960s in a suburb near Seattle. Heaps of blackberry vines flourished on the church grounds at the end of my street and in the neighborhoods few remaining vacant lots.
Left untended, the brambles grew with abandon, tumbling over fences and even extending into and arching from trees. Most of the year, we kids considered the vines nuisances that barred our otherwise free explorations. But every summer the ripening berries transformed our relationship. For weeks we were drawn to the thorny thickets like moths to a flame.
We checked the blackberry bushes daily in July. First the gentle heat coaxed forth delicate white blossoms, attracting swarms of buzzing honeybees. The flowers turned into small, rock-hard, green berries that made terrific ammunition for homemade slingshots. The berries that escaped being used as bullets turned red, then deepened to purple in a process that seemed so slow.
Impatient, we tested red and purple speckled berries only to gag and spit their tartness out. Finally, when the fruit was almost black, it filled our mouths with the full sweetness of summer.
Armed with pails from our sandboxes and Tupperware from our mothers cabinets, we descended upon the blackberry strongholds. Picking required care; the berries were well protected by sharp thorns. We avoided the barbs most of the year, but at harvest time we had no choice but to face them. The timid picked just the edges. The brave pinned vines under sneakers and snaked arms into tangled mazes, lured by the biggest, ripest berries. As we wore nothing but shorts and T-shirts, the thorns ripped at exposed flesh, eliciting yelps of pain.
The suns rays warmed, accentuating the pungent odor of sweet, ripe fruit. Bees droned, reaping nectar from late-blooming flowers and sometimes adding a sting to the scratches already garnered by the more careless pickers.
We returned home triumphant, lugging buckets overflowing with glistening, black treasure. Our purple clothes, fingers and mouths revealed both our gluttony and industry. Blackberry pie for dessert! we demanded. Our mothers, unfettered by demands of full-time jobs or chauffeuring duties so common today, always complied. If we had picked enough, they also produced a few jars of blackberry jam. On a drizzly February morning, a spoonful of jam spread on warm toast would provide a welcome summer reminder.
Most of the blackberry bushes are long gone. Homes sit on the once-vacant lots and the church expanded its parking lot. Only a few vines survive on the properties of rare negligent owners, and they are well out of the berry-picking range of passersby.
A taste of my childhood summers for $2.19. Its not the ridiculous price that deters; I just know the berries wont taste the same if I havent picked them myself on a warm summers day. I move on, a little wistful, but resolved.
Two days later I stumble upon a small blackberry vine tucked behind our propane tank. Several red berries ripen in the sum. I consider pulling it. Its a weed, isnt it? But I dont. Instead I wait. Soon Ill harvest a handful of blackberries and savor the sweetness of my childhood once again.