Berries

As a child, I lived next door to an elderly couple who spent their golden years cultivating gorgeous roses, raising chickens, growing strawberries, and nurturing a special friendship with my little brother and me.

Each year, the last day of school seemed to magically coincide with the beginning of strawberry season. For every two quarts we picked for Dike to sell for fifty cents from his side porch, we were allowed to take one home for ourselves, which seemed to my brother and me like gainful summer employment. Once we’d picked our quota, we were rewarded by the pleasure of returning to the shady swing set in our own back yard, payment in hand: a soggy, juice-stained balsa-wood box tip-top full of warm, sweet berries.

By the time I grew up and had children myself, Dike and his wife had died and his lovingly tended strawberry fields had long since been subdivided into condominiums. It wasn’t until twelve years ago, when I found myself alone in a rented cabin with my own two little boys, that I rediscovered the joy of berry picking.

I had rented the place on a whim, over the phone and sight unseen, envisioning swims in the lake, games of Old Maid on the screened porch, hot dogs cooked on sticks over a fire. I wanted time alone with Henry and Jack, away from the easy comforts of home and the distractions of our suburban neighborhood. Ever since my own parents had rented a small rustic cabin on the shore of Lake Winnepesaukee when I was a little girl, I’d been in love with cottage life. Some of my fondest childhood memories coalesce around that first passion and that unadorned place: the scent of pine, carried on a breeze through an open window; the slap of lake water on my face just moments after waking up in the morning; hours whiled away on a lumpy daybed on a screened porch, reading The Borrowers from cover to cover. I was hoping my sons would love what I had loved as a child, that they too would be enchanted by old books and whole days spent in damp bathing suits.

But this was June in Maine. And my sons were used to a little more structure than I had in mind. The cabin was remote; the lake water, inky black and freezing cold. We read for a while, huddled in blankets by the woodstove. They laid out a game of Strat-o-matic on the kitchen table. There were ants everywhere, and so we came up with ingenious ways to protect our food supply. By the morning of the third day, I was wondering what on earth we would do with ourselves for an entire week.

“Let’s go exploring,” I suggested after breakfast, hustling the kids into the car. “Let’s just go home,” Jack, who was seven, replied.

Strawberries saved us. Driving down the country road toward town, I spotted a sign: U-Pick. We pulled over, and within minutes the three of us were plopped down in the middle of a gloriously abundant row, the sun warm at our backs, the long, empty day salvaged by a new sense of purpose. My children, having come of age eating agribusiness berries, industrially grown and shipped to our grocery store from afar, were amazed. Who knew that a strawberry could taste so good?

We picked three heaping flats that morning and feasted on strawberry shortcake with freshly whipped cream, and hot chocolate, for dinner that night. In my memory, we ate strawberries and chocolate at every meal that week. We slept together in one bed to stay warm and never did go swimming even once, though I nearly drowned us all when a sudden, violent storm swept our tipsy canoe all the way across the lake and I found myself utterly unable to paddle against the wind back to shore. (Later, Henry managed to eke three school essays out of that near disaster, one of which he entitled, “The Worst Moment of my Life.”)

My sons are grown now, our week in that isolated cabin just another bit of childhood nostalgia – though a memory my sons, amazingly enough, seem to cherish just as much as I do my own youthful recollections of endless cabin afternoons and quiet pleasures. In recent years, we created a new berry-picking tradition here in New Hampshire at a nearby farm that opens its fields to the public for as long as the crop lasts. Steve and I could usually coerce our teenaged boys to put in a couple of hours of picking on a Saturday morning, as long as there was a promise of shortcake for dinner. The effort was always worth it, more than worth it, and any initial grumbling would soon give way to the elemental satisfaction of harvesting sweet perfection. Who could possibly be grumpy while picking strawberries on a glorious morning in June?

This year, though, it was just two of us on our knees in the strawberry field. Henry is already gone for the summer, ensconced in his first post-college job, playing piano at a musical theatre on the Cape. Jack, who graduated from high school last week, is sharing an apartment in Cambridge for the summer, working at the studio where he’s been an intern for the last two years. He’ll come and go from home, but his sense of where he belongs now is shifting; slowly, over the last couple of weeks, he’s been moving stuff out of here to there: his guitar, his speakers, a set of dresser drawers.

And so, carrying on our old tradition but in a new way, Steve and I got up early yesterday and headed to the farm. We played Cat Stevens on the car stereo and planned out the rest of the day – a few hours of hulling and slicing, the French Open finals on TV, an afternoon in the garden, omelets for dinner, and, of course, strawberry shortcake for dessert. I thought about how grateful I am to have a partner with whom to share the doings of an ordinary Sunday and, at the same time, I found myself wondering if I’ll ever get used to the reality of our new, down-sized family.

In years past, the four of us could easily pick fifty pounds of strawberries in less than an hour; by late winter, they would all be gone, too. Yesterday, Steve and I agreed: twenty-five pounds would be plenty. There are, after all, only two of us now. And yet, still as always, what a treat it will be, some winter’s night, to thaw out a generous heap of our own strawberries, sprinkle them with sugar, and ladle them over bowls of vanilla ice cream, each bite a redolent reminder of summers past and a promise of summer’s eventual return.

The time has long since vanished when a family’s survival depended on each member pulling his or her weight, hunting and gathering, planting and reaping, so that food would appear on the table at the end of the day. And yet, picking berries with my husband yesterday morning was a gentle reminder to me: our busy, complicated, human lives are still inextricably linked to the earth, and to all things there is a season.

Strawberry season — like childhood, like marriage, like life itself — is fleeting. Fail to pay attention, get too distracted by other things, and you’ll miss it. And so, come June, I watch the weather and, with some sense of urgency, I mark off a Saturday for berries. Our days of family outings to the berry patch may have ended, but there is beauty in this new configuration, too, as I look over at my husband of twenty-five years, head bent to his work, peacefully filling his tray.

Again and again, these days, I find myself brought to this threshold between acceptance of what is and sadness for what’s over. I can mourn the life chapter that has quietly, inevitably, come to a close, or I can choose instead to appreciate the modest, though no less meaningful, gift of what is — right here, right now. And so it is that I gather up my basket full of memories and resolve to carry it with a lighter heart. I want to make sure that I am present to this day and this place, so that I am able to relish this time alone with my husband, to savor the easy ebb and flow of our conversation as we load up our flats and fill our stomachs.

After all, the joy of berry picking is always, in part, the joy of the moment — the caressing breeze of a summer day, the ripe, rich smell of dirt and mulch and luscious fruit; birdsong, blue sky, good company. But it is also the bittersweet joy of acceptance, of knowing that this fine day, too will end, that summer bends inevitably toward fall, that little boys grow into men and leave home, that seasons turn and life changes and nothing lasts forever. I do know that, and I’m okay with it.

But I also know that when I sit down in frigid February to a bowl of fragrant strawberries picked in June, I will pause and marvel, grateful that in the simple act of picking berries and putting them by, we’ve managed to capture not only summer’s lavish bounty, but a few good memories as well.

for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. I have wonderful and specific memories of my own mother taking me berry picking on the last day of school, which I recently wrote about here:

    http://www.elizabethgrantthomas.com/2012/05/11/the-magic-mystery-and-wonder-of-mothers/

    Raising a daughter in New Mexico, which has very few berry fields, I ache at the thought of never getting to take her berry picking (maybe when we’re on vacation in Seattle some year?). Your piece brought to mind what a gift my mother gave me, in her own, inadvertent way, of teaching me to enjoy this moment, no matter how fleeting.

    Now, off to find some fresh berries!

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      Oh, what a beautiful piece! Your mother lives in these words, as does your grief at losing her. I so love that image of your mom turning the crank, working her magic, quietly loving you and teaching you how to show love in return.

  2. K, like you, I love picking strawberries ! I just saw this recipe and thought you might like it also … stawberries with balsamic vinegar…

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/strawberries-with-balsamic-vinegar-recipe/index.html

    Hope to see you soon, before our next reunion…

    A

  3. Donna Daniels says:

    Just finished eating fresh picked Michigan strawberries, and sat down to check email…and this! Loved it!

  4. Thanks for bringing me back to my wonderful memories of summer, when my dad would yell late at night “Who wants ice cream?” We would all pile in the convertible with the top down (no seat belt laws then) and huddle together to keep warm in the cool summer night. We would pull up to Bonnie Doons and order into a speaker. I loved waiting for the young gal to come out on her roller skates and deliver the rich ice cream. My dad is gone now, but the memories are vivid as if only yesterday. Thanks for your inspiration!!

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      Love this. Yes, the memories live on — and they are precious indeed. Thank you for sharing yours!

  5. Mary Lynne Johnson says:

    Thank you, as always, for your wise words. Russ and I are heading to Quisi
    at the end of June. Don’t suppose you’ll be there.?

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      For the first time, we won’t be there. Jack is slowly healing from stress fractures in his spine (no tennis for a long time) and Henry is away all summer, and we can’t quite bear the thought of a family vacation with only part of the family. Hard to imagine a summer without Quisi, but we always knew it would come. Have a wonderful week!

  6. I laughed so hard reading this! Your boys!! Both the parts about Jack wanting to go home and Henry’s essays. Although I am sure rowing that boat in the storm was terrifying when it happened. Isn’t it amazing what moments in our lives make the most vivid memories? As always your words bring me home to myself and to that stillness that is always there. And I am so inspired to pick strawberries and freeze them for winter! xoxo

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      Yes, it WAS terrifying. It took me weeks actually to recover — from the blisters on my hands, from the realization that I had put us in real danger, from the sobering confrontation with my own self in that cabin. And yet, I’m also glad it’s part of our shared history. (Think this will be the case for your family and that residential hotel — SOMEDAY you will all be glad for this chapter, and you’ll laugh about it, too.)

  7. I have yet to berry-pick, myself, or with my family. My daughter LOVES strawberries, as do I. Your reflections implore me to make time to experience this with my daughter this summer. Thank you, as always, for reminding me to cherish each moment, while it’s fresh and ripe!

    P.S. Have you ever had a tres leches cake with strawberries? I just had it from a local bakery for the first time last month–it was so luscious!

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      If you miss strawberry season, there is always raspberry, and blueberry ahead. . .And apples in the fall. I love them all.

  8. Salma Siddiqui says:

    like berry picking, your words soothe our soul, reminding to be patient and mindful of each passing moments. Time is our field and its up to us to stop pluck happiness and store memories for frigid winters of our lives. The strawberries (or fleeting moments) when picked with attention and joy remain fresh for a long time in the storehouse of our memories.

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      Beautifully said. I love that idea of time as the field, strawberries as the fleeting moments. I think that’s what I was trying to say — but you did it better!

  9. MargieAnn says:

    Your words make sense to me and my heart! I am grateful for your writing and sharing. Always. Truly.

  10. Your books have been so helpful to me, and have given me courage and a sense of gratitude during those times when I have needed them most. Today’s post on “berries” makes me wish that you would write yet another book on the “empty nest” life stage. You have an amazing gift of seeing beauty where it may appear hidden, and helping the rest of us do the same. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      Kelly, I HAVE been working on a book about the empty nest — it’s been the hardest one of all to write, perhaps because it’s also been the stage of motherhood I’ve struggled with the most. But the manuscript is in production now. Books in January. . . More on this anon! Glad that you will be there to read it, at least!

  11. Is it wrong of me to quote YOU in response to this?! :) Well, I’ll go ahead because when I read this I could only think about what you wrote in Gift of an Ordinary Day:

    “I allow just for a moment, the past to push hard against the walls of my heart. Being alive, it seems, means learning to bear the weight of the passing of all things. It means finding a way to tightly hold all the places we’ve loved and left anyway, all the moments and days and years that have already been lived and lost to memory, even as we live on in the here and now, knowing full well that this moment, too is already gone. It means, always, allowing for the hard truth of endings. It means, too, keeping faith in beginnings.”

    It’s like a constant dance; letting go of the past while embracing the present; mixing the appreciation with the grief and sadness. Katrina, you are dancing so well!

    XO
    Meredith

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      Thanks Meredith. I think I keep writing the same things over and over — probably because I’m such a slow learner and need to keep learning the same lessons again and again. (I’m not that good a dancer!)

  12. what a fabulous piece. it reminds me of a little girl spending summers upstate new york at my aunt and uncles house. they had a huge garden filled with spinach, and redbeats and green beans and tomatoes and all sorts of great things. we would pick all day and and my aunt would cook them all for dinner. such fond memories. I also feel your statements about strawberry picking with just you and your husband now. this is the first time my husband and I have been alone in 25 years. our son is engaged to be married and moved from home this past October, in 2005 my aunt moved in with us for five months while ending her battle with leukemia, in 2006 my mom moved in with us after suffering a heart attack. she passed away this February 23rd at the age of 93. despite the number I was not prepared to say goodbye as she was so strong for her age. she literally went in the blink of an eye. So I also am getting used to this new adjustment of he and i alone again. it is bittersweet. we are enjoying it but I do miss the noise a little. everything is so simple now..food shopping, cooking, laundry, housework….but the memories stay with us….we cant sail a ship that is tied to the dock….this is the second chapter…its time for us to wave goodbye to the old life and hold the memories in our hearts but begin to untie the knot to set sail for the new journey. I still do my hobby http://www.50plusstickingtogether.com and i did a blogradio show on moms passing a few weeks ago…there is a link to the show on the website. I am an amateur however its a hobby I enjoy…..keep your memories coming. everyone has a story. together we can all relate one way or another:)

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      So true! Everyone does have a story, and they are all worth telling. Love your thoughts here. Thank you.

  13. Awesome, as usual. Loved the title of Henry’s essay. Laughed out loud!

    • Katrina Kenison says:

      But of course the “worst” moment of his life is also a cherished memory. I think that’s kind of funny, too.

  14. Karin Carmack says:

    I just wanted to let you know I absolutely love your writing. I just finished your book The Gift of an Ordinary Day and just received Mitten Strings from God. Truly inspirational. Thank you.

  15. Love the picture of Steve! What a good sport! It’s a rare thing around here for a family member to want to pose for a picture for me, knowing it might go on a blog or website. He’s a good egg, that Steve.
    I’m jealous of your strawberries. They are one of my favorite foods. And like tomatoes, they never taste the same off the grocery store shelf.
    Have a great summer, Katrina, figuring out your new ‘nest’. :)
    Judy
    justonefoot.blogspot.com

  16. Tendrils of memory rose like vines and cascaded like gentle waves lapping at your images and emotions: my Buby Rose’s stories of picking wild berries in the forest by her farm in Austria-Hungary before the soldiers came and the had to leave forever; picking wild blueberries in the forest in Wisconsin, my counselor cooking them into Bisquick for impromptu muffins cooked on a campfire; watching “Wild Strawberries” in college, wondering if they were really red in the quiet world of black and white summer Sweden; the berry patch and subsequent pies with my own family, boy’s fingers stained with juice…

    Thank you, Katrina, for your spirit ripens like berries, and what you bring truly does last forever: Love.

  17. As one not quite accepting the inevitable truth of my own future without my boys… I couldn’t help but have one thought over and over while reading this. Grandchildren! You and Steve will share this tradition with grandchildren (maybe even a grand daughter) and your boys will be so grateful that their children get to experience your magic just like they did. That’s the only way I can accept the passing of time at this moment, but I have a few more years to come to terms with things.

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