My obsession with blackberries started innocently enough this Spring with the discovery of a jagged little vine hiding out in my cast iron plants. This tiniest of miracles seemed more worthy of saving than usual against the backdrop of the global pandemic unfolding beyond our yard.
For all the ways this quarantine has cast a dark shadow across our lives it has also shed a fresh light on the smallest and most ordinary of things. Instead of hacking this blackberry vine from my garden and tossing it aside like just another vilified weed I was compelled to dig it up, careful to preserve its roots. I grabbed an old terra cotta pot from the side of the house and brushed the rain-caked mud from its sides. I filled it with fresh garden soil and carefully tucked my sweet little vine into the warm damp earth.
These are the kinds of strange things you find yourself doing for entertainment when your car sits caked in pollen in your driveway and you no longer leave your cramped half acre property in the heart of the city.
You “rescue” weeds and marvel at the audacity of the sun, the soil, the water and this persistent little plant that conspire to bring forth fruit and sustenance in the midst of so much chaos. I felt a deep appreciation for its optimistic disregard of all the noise and fear that screamed forth from my iPhone every time I would check in on the outside world.
On that early Saturday morning my husband, Cain, found me in the kitchen scrubbing at the dirt beneath my nails. We aren’t the kind of couple who adheres to a strict policy of shared activities. If one of us is doing something that interests the other, then they are usually allowed to invite themselves along — but it’s never expected or required.
“What are you doing today,” he asked.
My usual weekend hikes were beginning to cause me more anxiety than peace. The trails teemed with families with too much time on their hands and no place else to go. Hyperactive kids ran in and out of the forest screaming at the top of their lungs and failing to stay anywhere near the suggested six feet away from me.
I needed a plan that would keep me much closer to home this weekend.
“I don’t know. Maybe we could make jelly? I thought I might see if the farmer’s market has any blackberries,” I said.
That familiar look of excitement, wonder and surprise crossed his face. He loved trying new things as much as he loved watching me work outside of my comfort zone.
“Have you ever made jelly,” he asked?
“No. Not really. I mean, I think I sort of shadowed my Ma-Ma one summer when she made it.”
A faded image of the window in my Ma-Ma’s white ceramic oven and little glass jars full of slick, purply-black goo slowly came to mind.
I dried my hands and walked over to our kitchen hutch where we piled the cookbooks in the bottom cabinet for occasional reference and special holiday use. I pulled out a pickling and canning cookbook I bought eight years earlier on our usual Christmas Eve shopping jaunt over on Saint Simon’s Island.
“Have you ever made jelly before?” I asked.
He could only recall peeling pears for two consecutive days until the skin on his hands became so paper thin, pink and wrinkly from being coated in pear juice that he could hardly touch anything without wincing at the tenderness for days.
He had long forgotten whatever they had made next — surely it was jelly. His Mom would later confirm for us when she called that afternoon that she and her mother, Agnes, had made preserves out of the pears but that they had turned so sweet and sugary that she had to throw the whole batch out.
I brushed my teeth, threw on my oversized sweatshirt and my beloved New York Yankees cap, and headed to the local weekend farmer’s market with romantic notions of buying up all the organic blackberries. There were strawberries as far as the eye could see, but I know now, that blackberries aren’t ready for harvest in Georgia until early or mid-July. Undeterred, and with nothing better to do, I stopped by the Publix on Ponce on my way home and bought sixteen pints of Driscoll’s blackberries and a set of twelve half-pint Ball mason jars.
Back at home, I washed the new jars. I stared through the window at the birdfeeder that once stood in my grandparents’ side yard. I go there in my mind every time I wash a sink full of dishes after a party. I become seven years old all over again, standing atop my trusty step stool making plans for the day with my Pa-Pa.
Cain started zesting a lemon and I snapped from my daydream to quickly stage the perfect Instagram still-life of blackberries, with a pile of lemons and a Pyrex cup full of sugar on my Mom’s old cutting board before our beautiful raw ingredients got all messed up. In spite of the unfamiliar territory and complicated instructions we were actually having a lot of fun. We were excited about the prospect of succeeding at this jelly-making experiment and having some non-pandemic news to talk about with our family and friends.
We dumped the freshly washed berries into the stockpot on the stove. And then we waited. We waited and stirred. I fidgeted with the Thanksgiving turkey thermometer which consistently registered 180° no matter how many times or where I inserted it into the mix.
“This thing doesn’t work,” I said.
Cain stared at the game on his phone and offered a half-interested, “hmmmm?”
I leaned my hip against the counter by the stove and resigned myself to stirring the berries and sugar until the mixture reached “either 220°” or looked “thick and glossy” as the recipe had described. It also suggested that I could test for doneness using the “chilled plate test” — a bizarre and new to me method that seemed to provide about as reliable a measurement as our busted thermometer.
The kitchen heated up quickly and the automatic motion of stirring invited my mind to wander once more.
Pa-Pa stood in the corner between the stove and the work table that pressed into the back of his thighs while he tended the bacon. The kitchen looked like a child’s playset in proportion to my Pa-Pa’s massive frame. He was half-dressed in his usual black work pants and threadbare undershirt. A grease-stained white apron hung around his neck by a tiny string.
Yesterday’s dirty dishes soaked and waited for me in the sink beside him. A light breeze blew through the house and out the back door where Queenie stood sniffing and whining to make her presence known.
I leaned in from the dining room and peered over the kitchen table toward the back porch where Tina slept in the tiny doghouse Pa-Pa had built for her.
I zipped through the room, hoping that if I was fast enough, I could hang out with Tina before Pa-Pa reminded me that I needed to do the dishes.
Mom said I couldn’t have a dog of my own because of my asthma and allergies. But Tina was a greasy little black and white short-haired chihuahua who didn’t bother my breathing at all. Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa understood that a boy should have a dog and, together, Tina and I got away with just about anything we wanted when I would visit.
I pushed the swinging door into her doghouse and called for her. I could hear her tiny tail thwacking the wooden side of her house. She was somehow fat, lazy and old all her life. It took an inordinate amount of begging to get her out of bed every morning.
“She can’t come in here. You know that.”
Pa-Pa knew my next move without even having to turn from his stove to see what I was up to. I was steadily being reminded that their dogs were outside dogs. But Tina lived so close to the inside that it seemed cruel not to let her in. Not like Queenie, out in the yard, who I only ‘accidentally’ let in any time it stormed.
“I know.” I dragged Tina from her doghouse and plopped her in my lap. I petted her with the heavy-handed force of an over-enthusiastic child who had no dog of his own. Her eyes squinted in anticipation and dread before each clumsy plop of my hand on her tiny little head. Her tail wagged slowly as she sweetly allowed me to smack her around.
When my hunger got the best of me, I pushed her from my lap and lovingly reminded her in my most inviting high-pitched voice, “You have to stay out here.” I was pretty sure she understood my subliminal cue for her to break the rules and follow me inside anyway.
I dragged a heavy wood chair out from the kitchen table. There was nowhere to put anything down between the stack of mail and newspapers, the giant pound cake shrouded in its frosted Tupperware, and the basket full of laundry on top of the table. Whenever we wanted to spend time in the kitchen together it required an artful stacking and rearranging of things on the few empty surfaces you could find — the washer, the top of the refrigerator, or even — when you were in a bind — under the table.
I moved the laundry basket over to the washer. I heaved it up to my chest with my knee and shoved it on top of the machine where it landed on the hollow metal lid with a loud thunk.
I pulled a napkin from its taco-shaped holder and made a little place-setting for myself. I pulled my asthma meds from my pocket and placed them on the napkin so I wouldn’t forget to take them later. I sat and wiggled my butt until I slid to the back of the chair, and waited for Pa-Pa’s signal.
“Get you a cup from over there.”
He motioned to the cabinets above the drying rack beside the sink. I stood on my tiptoes and opened the cabinet to pull down the green plastic tumblers we were allowed to use. He kept his Sanka right beside our cups in the cabinet.
“Can I have some coffee,” I asked as casually as I could, careful not to invite any questions about what I was or wasn’t allowed to do back home with Mom.
“Yeah,” he said as he grabbed the tumbler from me and walked back to the stove where a pot of warm milk was already cooling. I scrambled to yank the Sanka from the shelf before Ma-Ma woke up and busted me.
He smiled at my transparent excitement over our little ritual and half-heartedly urged me not to dump too much coffee or sugar into my milk. He turned back to his stove and left me to make my own concoction. I knew there was enough sugar in the milk when it was hard to drag my spoon through the sludge at the bottom of my cup.
Invigorated by the rush of sugar and Sanka, I pulled my brown metal step ladder (which also doubled as my chair at the dining room table) over to the sink and started washing last night’s dishes. I stood on the top step to be as tall as Pa-Pa while we worked side by side. I asked him about our plans for the day but he told me I’d have to wait and see what Ma-Ma had in mind whenever she woke up. He would be working in his buildings all day.
We were not allowed to play or spend time in Pa-Pa’s buildings — alone or with him. They were his sanctuary. Any time we’d wander off in that direction, an aunt or my Mom would holler from the swing in the side yard “don’t go up there! There’s snakes in those barns!”
Unlike the other forbidden corners of the yard — the pump house, the ditch where the little stream trickled under their driveway, or Ma-Ma’s beloved Magnolia tree — those barns stayed shielded from our undying curiosity by the imminent threat of death by snake bite. To this day the only thing I know for sure was in those barns is writhing piles of deadly venomous snakes.
The soft shuffle of Ma-Ma’s baby blue house-shoes announced her arrival as she made her way to the kitchen. Pa-Pa took off his apron and hung it on the nail by the stove. It was their changing of the guard routine. She sat in her spot — the chair closest to the dining room door where she could converse with anyone in the house no matter where they moved. She could sit there piddling with her pills, her Bible, and her recipes all day.
You could hear a low, soft wheeze in her voice as she made small talk and separated her morning pills. We were alike in this strange way. “How’s your asthma,” she always wanted to know. Pa-Pa patted her shoulder and put a plate of food beside her. Then he disappeared to the bedroom to get dressed and head up to his buildings for the day.
“Did you take your pills,” she asked.
“Yeah, what are we doing today,” I said, changing the subject. I had better things to do than talk about asthma. I hated asthma. Not just for how hard it made it to breath sometimes — but for how it made people treat me on my good days. Everyone acted like I should avoid doing anything even remotely exciting or fun for fear I would just drop dead at the peak of my excitement. I was constantly fighting to join in even the most routine kid things. Asthma was probably why I had to hang out in the house instead of doing cool grown-up stuff in the barns with Pa-Pa all day.
“Well, do you want to help me make jelly,” she asked.
“Make jelly?” I was confused.
First, I didn’t even know you could make jelly. I thought you just bought it. Second, it seemed like the kind of thing you’d only do if you had to. Like maybe if you were poor.
I suddenly noticed how humble and sparse the rest of the house was. An odd assortment of records and cassettes, and a Scrabble board game gathered dust beneath the Yellow Pages by the phone in the dining room. A bunch of photo albums and a shelf full of frames were tucked beside the big recliner in the living room. A stack of Guidepost devotionals crowded the table by the chair that looked into the living room where Ma-Ma sat to watch TV and do her embroidery.
Maybe they were poor. My heart sank a little. I might need to suck it up and help them, I thought.
“I thought y’all could help me pick grapes to make jelly,” she said.
I was so confused. Where did she think we were going to pick grapes? She couldn’t drive. She gave up trying to learn after she drove the car into the back steps. And Pa-Pa already had plans for the day.
“Where are we gonna get grapes,” I asked incredulously.
She wiped her hands on her napkin and stood from her seat, waving me around to where she was. She guided me through the house with her hands on my shoulders, out to the far edge of the front porch. The screen door slammed behind us and she pointed to a corner of the yard where we were never allowed to play — just beyond an overgrown hedge.
“Look over there. Y’all are going to help me pick those and we’re going to make jelly.”
And there it was. In yet another “forbidden zone” in the yard — a real live grapevine!
This too, had been guarded by the casual hollering of our aunts and uncles who always watched and directed us from the front porch. They’d interrupt their conversations to steer us away from any possible danger or keep us from trampling the daffodils and irises that lined the sandy yellow driveway. “Stay away from that barbed wire,” they’d yell as we chased Queenie through the yard. We would veer hard to our right and run around the corner of the house where they could no longer boss us while we played.
A shadow moved behind us in the light of the living room. I turned to see my sister through the screen door still rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“We’re gonna make jelly,” I said as I opened the door and pushed her aside, nearly knocking her over as I ran back in the house to change out of my pajamas.
I would have been worried about her general disinterest in our plans if I didn’t know any better. As the oldest, she usually knew better than me how the adults’ plans for the day were going to play out for us. Still, I rushed headlong into our adventure trusting that this was just like any other family activity to her these days — completely boring and beneath her. If it wasn’t Days of Our Lives, Menudo, or Rick Springfield then she just wasn’t interested anymore.
Ma-Ma had me climb under the work table to pull out the big pots way at the back while my sister ate her breakfast in total silence. I pulled back the white linen skirt tacked to the underside of the chunky wooden table and my heart dropped.
“Mom would shit herself,” I thought. I’d seen enough 80’s movies to develop a deep appreciation of profanity at the ripe young age of seven. Through trial and error I had learned to no longer say these words out loud to my family. I couldn’t quite seem to master the comedic timing of the lines I heard in the movies. Mom almost laughed once when I asked her “what the Hell she was doing,” but she’d sent me to my room so fast I never had a chance to see if she actually did.
I clanged around under the table as Ma-Ma described every pot, pan and jar she needed me to retrieve for her. It must have looked like quite the strange puppet show as my skinny little arm popped through the curtain holding up pots and pans one by one and loudly asking, “this the one?”
By the time we finally made our way down to the grapevine the novelty of our mission was beginning to fade. Their home in Winnsboro, South Carolina, was just 35 miles north of Columbia — a city whose “famously hot” tourism brand was earned by being recognized as one of two hottest cities East of the Mississippi. By 10 a.m., the middle of an open field was nowhere you wanted to be in the sandhills of South Carolina in late July.
As the sun beat down, I wondered how in the world we were going to drag all those grapes back up to the house. Each of us had two large bowls to fill all on our own. My sister and Ma-Ma, unburdened by a hyperactive, sugar-dosed mind, made faster work of it than me. When their buckets were full, they declared our work to be done and we dragged our bounty back to the welcoming shade of the front porch.
I couldn’t stay close enough to Ma-Ma the rest of the afternoon. If she could have borne the weight of me on her shoulders I would have gladly climbed atop her tiny frame for an up-close view of this jelly-making magic.
Instead, I was allowed to stand precisely in one spot — on top of my trusty brown metal step ladder.
As the jelly-making dragged on my mood swung between exhaustion, boredom and total astonishment. I had never seen my Ma-Ma really do much except for sit with her embroidery while my parents and aunts and uncles told boring stories about people I didn’t care about or know. Pa-Pa was always the doer in the family. He built dog houses and swings and picnic tables. He grew corn and cucumbers and beans. He cooked breakfasts and made black walnut pound cakes. There was nothing he couldn’t do. All the while, I thought Ma-Ma was too tired to do much more than talk on the phone and read her Guideposts.
But today, she was a different woman. Her usual nervousness and scattered focus were replaced by an easy confidence she seldom displayed when the house was full of people and activity. Here, with just us and just this one task, she was different.
I watched her as she brought the grapes to boil in the big pot I had dragged out for us. My jaw dropped and my eyes sparkled as she slowly poured a crystal white stream of sugar into the mix.
The rest of the steps blurred together in the heat of the kitchen. It seemed like an awful lot of waiting for something you could just buy in a store. I watched the jars through the little glass window in the oven until it was time for them to come out and cool. She let me holler out the back door for Pa-Pa to come down from his buildings and move the loaded down tray full of jars to their cooling spot on top of the washing machine. Then we waited some more.
Ma-Ma fed us a quick lunch and hurried me and my sister off to the front porch while she cleaned the kitchen.
We whistled for Queenie and Tina to join us, and the four of us sat patiently in the glider. Grateful for the down time, waiting out the heat of the afternoon, we watched as bright white thunderclouds bloomed like popcorn in the sky out over the yard.
The screen door creaked open. The dogs jumped off the glider and out of the way as Ma-Ma dumped a soft, rolled, brown paper bag between my sister and me. She placed a shiny silver mixing bowl at our feet and shooed the dogs off the porch. She pulled her rocking chair closer to us and proceeded to show us how to snap the ends off the beans. She instructed us to toss the ends back in the bag and snap the rest into thumb-sized bits to drop in the bowl at our feet.
The percussive sounds of snapping beans, and the loud ping they made as they hit the bowl were accompanied by the soft roll of thunder and the steady flow of eighteen wheelers rumbling down the highway just beyond the row of cedar trees at the edge of the road. When our peaceful afternoon was first disrupted by the shocking sound of a jelly jar sealing with a loud suck and a pop echoing through the screen door, I thought I was going to pee my pants from giggling. It only got funnier as my boredom and fatigue set in. Eventually the heat wore me down and the jars became less funny. Our bag of beans slowly emptied out as the bowl at our feet filled up and I finally relaxed into the lazy pace of the afternoon.
There wasn’t really much else to do out here in the country. They got three channels on TV — two of which were clear enough to watch if you wanted it bad enough. Sometimes they listened to a record or the radio. But mostly, they filled their days with simple tasks like planting tomatoes, building furniture, making biscuits and pitchers of sweet tea, reading the Bible, and calling around to their friends.
I always arrived at their house with a bag full of toys, and enough coloring books and art supplies to entertain myself with all the comforts of home. But on these longer summer visits, I inevitably lost interest in my own things and turned my attention to theirs. In those rare moments when it was just the four of us — no parents, no aunts, uncles or cousins — my overstimulated kid brain settled into the steady and calm rhythm of their life.
Back in our kitchen that Saturday morning with Cain, I stir the jelly with one hand and I swipe through my phone with the other looking for an old Carole King song I can’t get out of my head. I hit play on her “Raspberry Jam.” It’s a trippy, funkadelic ode to breakfast that urgently proclaims “it’s time to begin again.”
Cain and I look in on our jelly and laugh and argue about whether or not we are doing any of this right. We read and re-read the recipe, wondering what half of the terms mean and trusting that we’ll either figure it out or fail spectacularly. We stir. We wait. Then we stir and wait some more.
I wonder if I slip out to our front porch and whistle loud enough will Queenie and Tina come running up the side of the house to greet me.
We put yet another pot of water on to boil so that we can safely seal our jars on the stove (instead of dangerously — as the Internet has informed me — like my Ma-Ma had done in her oven).
I slip up behind Cain where he stands over the stove. I wrap my arms around his waist and peer over his shoulder to see if the water is boiling and ready for our little jars to go in.
I rest my chin on his shoulder. I close my eyes and sway with him side to side as Carole King now sings those first familiar lines of “Up on the Roof.”
Between the stirring and the storytelling, our grandmothers, with their magnificent old Southern names — Fayezeon and Agnes — have come back to life in us. We watch hopefully over our little experiment bubbling on the stove, feeling less isolated by this quarantine; less confined by the constraints of space and time, and quietly aware of the wisdom and power of the generations still living within us.
A familiar calm settles in our bodies. We hum softly along with Carole and let the heat and memories and stillness lift our cares right into space.