Wednesday, July 26, 2006

On the Importance of Picking Blueberries

Every summer I pick blueberries. There are people you can bring berry picking and those you can't. Some people just "get" it. It's the outdoors, or the tradition, or they are the food of the gods, or it's just what's done. It's important that they get it. But why is it so important? I think blueberry picking is like some kind of portal to my bloodline. Like it represents part of who I am, and is one of my few definable team pennants that I can wave.

I think about my Maine grandparents whenever I pick blueberries. They lived by the ocean and worked at the shipyard and then moved to a mobile home on a small mountain. Grampa would hide out in his corner office of the garage and carve birds and go on several days long "hunting" trips. I'm under the impression he never really shot anything; he just took advantage of the concept to wander in the woods for days.

"Mama and I are goin' out," my grampa announced one afternoon when I was staying with them as a kid. "If you see a man walking through here," he waved toward the hilltop, "then you call the police. Unless he has a gun. Then he's all right." (He really didn't know I would grow up and move to big cities. )

I was a kid with a few questions, and they were full of answers and rules to live by. Never, ever, pick the corn until the water's boiling, my grandmother said. Put your wrists in the ocean first to take the edge off of the cold. Be sure to peel the tomatoes for the salad. And of course you go blueberrying at the end of the summer. One day I went picking with my mother, my grandmother, and her mother (who lived on a farm nearby) all packed in my Grammie's bright orange VW bug that she drove like a race car. The four generations returned home to eat required bowls of blueberries and Ritz crackers in fresh milk. "Blueberriescrackers'n'milk" was said as one word. It was what you do. I remember being horrified later to find a tick on my underpants.

I think I was less than seven years old on my first canoe camping trip with my grandparents. I remember bragging to my parents later about how I had paddled in the front of the boat for three hours! one day. My grandparents' friends had come along and brought a screen and projector and showed slides. I slept in a tent and felt the happiness of just being out in the world. We hiked mountains together and there was always a picnic once the adults made it to the top. Grammie would unpack homemade cookies she had always stacked safely in a Pringles can.

Sometimes in the summer we'd get extended relatives together at the shore and there would always be pork shoulder, barbecue potato chips, and cheap seventies cola. I could spend hours looking for tiny pieces of seaglass "gems" with my grandfather and his brother-in-law, Brownie.

In the fall while my grandmother was making relishes and pickles, my grandfather took me hiking near the mountain house. We'd look for old foundations and find the old houses' trash pits, digging up ancient bottles from old remedies and bone buttons.

Even when they lived by the shore, he told me the names of all the birds and trees, and his opinions of them. When a Baltimore Oriole made a long stocking nest in their yard, I went home to Massachusetts and meticulously painted a model of the bird in black, white and VW orange.

My favorites stories were of the cabin they once had in the North Woods. Both my grandfathers had built their summer cabins, and I spent weeks each summer at my dad's family's place in New Hampshire, but I never got to see this mythical place in Maine. Instead we'd sit in front of their mobile home by their His and Her gardens looking out across an old orchard at the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and they'd tell me about watching a moose swim all the way to an island across the lake through clouds of no-see-ums. We'd laugh and eat shrimp dip on Fritos and later have lobster.

Not long after they passed away, I escaped from my high tech career and stayed a week in a decaying Maine camp, in a desolate town in northern Aroostook County with two convenience stores and a hotel that catered to fishermen. My boyfriend and I drove the abandoned logging roads, and saw bear in the new forests where potato fields failed.

While boating along the shores of some public lands, we discovered a row of abandoned cabins, each carefully wallpapered in birch bark anchored in the corners with scrolling twigs. It was silent except for the sudden splashes of Kingfishers. I closed my eyes and imagined the families taking the train north from the cities to ferry across the lake from the dance halls and excitement of town to these cabins… getting together to watch moose and trade fish stories in front of the biggest stone fireplace in the state of Maine, by then reduced to a pile of stones in the long grass. Today it's been revamped into lodgings again for fishermen. (It's in the book I wrote about New England Cabins & Cottages, that I dedicated to my Maine Grampa.)

And today I feel like my times are so different, and yet while my grandparents and my mom and my uncle Brownie are all dead, my brother and I are still here and those folks would be having a good chuckle over how similar we are. And until he was no longer able, my dad still picked blueberries with me, and still provides the buckets when he can. "The nut doesn't fall far from the tree," he'd say.

My brother, my husband and I picked blueberries last weekend with two friends we'd just visited at their family's cabin in Northern Maine. I went home and contemplated whether my pickles were sealed properly and how I was going to make jewelry from some beach glass and ceramic shards while he went home and worked on sculptures involving trees and old farm equipment like a couple of nuts.

I feel a little guilty though – I just don't feel like I have the proper Maine accent to enthuse over "Blueberriescrackers'n'milk" but I did have some berries on Cheerios, which is pretty close. We all used email to report the ticks we'd removed. This weekend I'll be down the street from my grandparents house where I sat eating berries with my great grandmother. My inlaws have retired to Maine, and if I have kids, they'll get to visit their grandparents in the very same shore town I first knew as Grammie and Grampa's. Granted, it's a nine times bigger house and the town is known these days for its outlet stores, but I'll take it. Each time I drive up there I pass the Dairy Queen where my Grampa would sometimes let me get a highly illicit cone, and it makes me smile.



At 10:15 PM, Blogger Trellick Tower said...

Your blog is the reason I read blogs. It just makes me feel nice. Sometimes sad and nostalgic, but usually nice. If you stopped it would be like an old neighbour moving away.


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