my story as told by blackberries

It's not so much about blackberries as it is about memories. Personal narrative. And how I believe we live through our personal narratives, often molding and shaping them as we grow older, seeing them through a softer lens or a sharper one, depending on who we are and how our eyes adjust, how our hearts grow... or don't.
I'm feeling sad today. It's a free-floating kind of wistfulness, and it's fine -- some days are like that. I'm remembering my former mother-in-law's tomato relish because a batch of it is bubbling on the stove right now. I haven't made it in at least ten years, but today the house is full of that familiar vinegar, sugar, black pepper, tomato smell, and I am sifting back in time.
I'm remembering the things we define ourselves by. For instance, this mother-in-law -- her name was Juanita -- was ten years older than my own mother, Marie, and twenty years older than my first mother-in-law, Carolyn. I married as a teenager, and Carolyn had been a teenage mother as well. I was only nineteen years older than my first-born child. Whew. So I had a mother-in-law who was 35 years old when I married at 18. We were both so young.

I knew these numbers so well... they were a part of me. As we all got older, I continued to add it up. And then, Juanita died at age 83 (which meant my mother would have been 73), and my mother died at age 78, and it's harder to keep track of numbers now, especially now that I have a new mother-in-law who has just turned 83. My mother today would be 84. This week.
Before I started the tomato concoction to boil and reduce to a thick ketchup, I took the blackberries I bought at the farm earlier this week, and sprinkled them with sugar. I opened the Joy of Cooking I had given myself as a present in 1978, when I was 24 years old, newly married a second time and learning how to cook, and I decided to make a cobbler. I took my mother's rolling pin out of the drawer and felt its heft in my hand, remembered the times I had sat at the counter while she rolled out the jingle bell cookies or the pie dough at Christmas, and remembered her saying, "Some day you'll do this with your children." And I did.
I made the rolled biscuits on page 632 of Joy, and followed the directions for cobblers on page 660, but I didn't heat my fruit or add flour or egg to thicken it -- I knew the biscuits would do their part to soak up the juice. My mother had taught me this.
I thought about those blackberries. There was a huge field of wild blackberries next to Camp Springs Elementary School in Prince George's County, Maryland when I was growing up. I wanted in the worst way to pick those berries. An old ramshackle house was in front of the field. At recess, we'd sometimes stare at that old house and wonder if anyone lived in it. Certain kids -- you know who they are -- would boast that they had seen an old lady with wild white hair and a pitchfork on the porch. Others said that ghosts haunted the house.

One day after school, I braved the blackberry patch, all alone. My heart beat wildly in my chest as I kept an eye on the back of the house while I bent down to see those berries. The smell was overpoweringly heady -- a blackberry feast of the senses that I remember to this day. This smell filled my kitchen as my cobbler baked and I washed the dishes.
There were too many thorns for me to pick long, but I didn't need many. I had emptied my pencil case into my satchel, and I filled it with blackberries -- for my mother. She would be so surprised! I raced home, skipped in the door, ran up the stairs to the kitchen, and announced my treasure.

"Were you trespassing?" was the first thing my mother asked me. Well... yes... I was.

"Only at the very back of the lot," I said, which was true.

And you know... I don't remember the rest of the story. I could make it up -- I could write some creative non-fiction, or I could write pure fiction about that day. I could say we sat down to blackberries a la mode and a meaty conversation.

I'm sure we didn't. I would remember that, wouldn't I? Memory is so complex, so unreliable, so slippery. And I didn't know anything about picking blackberries. What I had picked was mostly under-ripe -- not the luscious black of the berries I pulled out of my oven and piled into my bowl.
From that day on, I never really cared for blackberries. Not that I had had a hankering for them before. Likely I just wanted to do that forbidden thing, to see that forbidden fruit, and to offer some to my mother. It was all about wanting to be loved, as it always is with us human beings... wanting to give love and be folded up into love.

So I made a blackberry cobbler this week, surrounded it with homemade peach ice cream, broke my biscuits into the sweet hot blackberry juice, and took a bite of my memories. I held my spoon heavenward, in a toast. "This is for you, Mom."