All of the local kids I knew picked berries during the summer to make spending money and some to pay for school clothes and supplies in the year ahead. I started picking berries for money at the age of 6. Over the years, I worked the season: first strawberries, then raspberries, a short crop of boysenberries (by far the easiest), marionberries or blackcaps, then blackberries. My aunt Joyce took me with her to the berry fields to “help out” at her summer job and after a full day of picking strawberries, (many of which made their way into my mouth) I was proud to bring home three shiny dimes for my labors. My mother put them in a place of honor before dinner and I went to bed that night dreaming of all the penny candy I could buy at the little store in town.
Each summer, my mom would also make us wonderful desserts featuring local fruit and at the end of the season, one of my favorites was blackberry cobbler. My sisters and I would take large metal bowls and fill them with the wild berries that grew by the roadside or down at the edge of the field on our property and Mom would turn them into something delightful.
Shya and I went to visit my parents for their 60th wedding anniversary this past August (Congrats to Mom and Dad!), and so we were there during the height of the blackberry season. In order to keep fit, given all of my mother’s excellent meals, Shya and I decided to take a walk on the Springwater Corridor, a 40 mile loop that was created for walking or bike riding following an old trolley right-of-way. This paved walking trail has large cane blackberry bushes that grow in abundance on either side. During our walk I picked a few for Shya and myself and they tasted heavenly. I actually went to bed that night dreaming of taking a large metal bowl and filling it once again for my mom.
A couple days later we again went for a walk and now after additional time in the sun, there were even more of these ripened dark beauties hanging in clusters both high and low. My Aunt Larrita had just brought my folks a whole crate of them so I was relieved of the desire to do any serious picking and could simply focus on finding the ripest, juiciest, yummiest ones to savor – staining our tongues a dark purple.
As I was picking with Shya I realized that his lack of experience had him reaching for those berries that I would never pick. He automatically was drawn to the bright and shiny berries glowing in the sun. They looked perfect. They looked just like the ones you would find in the store: tasty but tart…usually very tart. And so I began to teach him from an old country girl perspective how to spot and pick “black gold.”
First you have to search for those that appear somewhat dull – they were easy to overlook when you had those that were bright and shiny hanging nearby. Then you need to put your thumb and index finger around the one that caught your eye and test for two things: If it was still really firm, it wasn’t ripe enough. If the berry resists when you pull, it isn’t ripe enough, either. If you want a berry that will melt in your mouth, tasting of long summer days, warm from the sun, find one that has lost its sheen; a berry that looks almost dusty and lackluster, one that practically falls apart in your hand. And don’t forget to include those tucked away, or hanging down low where people forget to look. They were everywhere. All you needed was to have the eyes to see.
On our last walk, we ate our way down the corridor and fully sated, strolled hand-in-hand as we headed back to the car. It was there, on that sun-kissed stretch that I realized that picking berries is a lot like dating. Often people forget that the commercialized image of the perfect pick has influenced what they are looking for and blinds them to seeing what is really and truly sweet “fruit.” In the magazines, on book covers and in advertisements, the person of your dreams never has a receding hairline or an ounce of extra fat. The picture-perfect datable person has perfect teeth, never has bad breath and is a runway model or someone famous. They never get the flu or have challenges at work. They don’t fart and never have salad stuck in their teeth. He or she is never older or younger, of a different ethnic group or religion and they certainly aren’t divorced with kids.
Folks are mesmerized by the bright and shiny people and they miss those around them that are sweeter, fully ripened and ready for picking. They look only at eye level in the picked over branches and time and again those in the dating game reach for only for the sour fruit – for those that are resistant to their advances. But if you look, there are people ripe and ready. They are everywhere. All you need is to have the eyes to see.