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Of Raspberries and (family) History

Bill Meredith

It may not have seemed like it at the time, but the record snowfalls we had last winter were the start of something good… a wetter-than-usual spring. As I write this, on the eve of the Summer Solstice, we are more than four inches ahead of our normal rainfall. The garden is growing like weeds, and not just because it is, mostly; the English walnuts are bending the branches of the tree toward the ground, and for the first time in years our raspberries are worth picking.

Our raspberry patch is the remnant of an aborted attempt at entrepreneurship by our youngest son. Sometime in the mid-70s, when he was 10 or 11 years old, he saw an ad in a magazine which promised great financial rewards from raising raspberries. He immediately concluded that his paper route was not lucrative enough, and decided to go into the raspberry business. Bankrolled by his grandmother, he ordered a couple hundred plants, which came complete with instructions for planting and cultivation. However, despite many visits to my parents’ farm in West Virginia, his knowledge of agriculture was surprisingly limited. He studied the instructions intently, and finally came to me with a puzzled look on his face: "Dad, it says I should work Man Yoor into the soil when I plant the berry vines. Do you know what that means?" I did know, of course; when I was his age, it was one of my daily chores to clean the manure out of the barn, and periodically to spread it on the fields with the tractor. Apparently he had never heard the word, so I tried to keep a straight face while I explained. As it turned out, he was spared the experience of direct contact with it; local farmers had already done their spring plowing, and their manure supplies were exhausted, so he had to buy commercial fertilizer instead. Most of the plants survived the ensuing winter, but the next summer was dry and no berries were produced. Faced with the prospect of tending the plants another year without any return on his investment, his interest dwindled and that section of the garden drifted back toward its natural state. Twenty years later, when we built our present house where the old garden had been, I rescued a few of the surviving raspberry vines from the brush and undergrowth that had engulfed them, and they now reside peacefully in the corner of our yard.

Raspberries have played a role in our family’s life for generations. Several years ago my aunt showed me a diary my grandmother had kept in 1903. It was a simple record which related each day’s events in a few terse sentences. One entry particularly caught my attention: "We all went down to the woods and picked raspberries today. Susie got bit by a copperhead. Lloyd kilt it." The next day’s entry stated that "Susie died this morning. I canned raspberries and made 12 pts of jelly." I didn’t remember anyone in the family named Susie, and I asked my aunt who she was and if life back then was really so unfeeling that they couldn’t even take a day off for a funeral. She explained that Susie was the dog, and while everyone liked her, life had to go on. The family were subsistence farmers; there was no refrigeration then, and fruit had to be processed when it was ripe. It wasn’t a luxury; it would be needed, come winter time.

We didn’t have to raise berries when I was growing up; there were plenty of wild ones, which required no cultivation and bore abundant crops each year. My father always reminded us to watch out for snakes and made sure we wore heavy shoes or boots, but my brothers and I went picking unattended. Occasionally we saw blacksnakes or garter snakes, but we knew they were harmless. I enjoyed picking the raspberries; most of them grew in shady places, and you could snack on them as you picked. The first picking was always the best; in the middle of each bunch on the vine, there was always that one big, juicy berry that ripened first and got bigger than the rest. We would get several gallons each summer, and they would be frozen, canned, or made into jam and pies. Occasionally we even had a few extra ones to sell.

When I began dating my future wife a few years later, my berry-picking skills made a favorable impression on her mother, who was glad to have free berries but disliked picking them herself because she was concerned about snakes. She told us she had been out picking berries when she was a girl and came upon the family cow, which was lying down in a hypnotic state, with a snake sucking milk from her. The snake, apparently startled by her approach, turned itself into a hoop by putting its tail in its mouth and rolled off down the hill and out of sight. The cow, she said, was completely dry that night. A quick calculation told me the snake must have consumed over two gallons of milk, which meant it must have been the size of an anaconda. I had heard such tales from my grandfather when I was little; he had a formidable reputation as a storyteller and liked to entertain children with such yarns. I was inclined to be skeptical, but it didn’t seem prudent to question the accuracy of an eyewitness, especially when I hoped to become her son-in-law. So I nodded solemnly, promised to be vigilant, and started off toward the solitude of the berry patch with a pail in one hand and my fiancé-to-be in the other. It was an enjoyable afternoon. We made sure to pick some berries before we came home.

There are probably fewer than two dozen berry vines remaining in the little patch in the corner of our yard. Each day for the past week I have gone down to collect the harvest; usually I get about half a quart of berries. The area is full of weeds and somewhat unsightly, and my wife is sure there are snakes in it too, so she frequently urges me to clean it out and plant something useful there. But I resist; the garden space we already have produces more vegetables than we need. So in another week, when they finish bearing, I will prune away the old vines, cut back the weeds, and try to persuade the new runners to take root in more or less orderly rows. I may even put some Man Yoor on them. Then I will forget about them until next year. As my son learned, we are at the mercy of the weather; next June may bring another berry crop, or it may not. But I know if I am still here I will be able to look at the berry patch and harvest another crop of memories. At this stage in life, that is enough.

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