The Blackberry Place
By Lauren DerrickA great blackberry bush grew down the road and across the stream. It was a thick, full bush—longer than a cabin and gave giant, sweet blackberries every summer. Berries dark as night and large as your thumb, juice popping into your cheeks with each delicious bite. Most farmers in the area cleared a blackberry bush away as soon as they saw one on their land. In Oregon, those bushes could easily escape a man's control. Mary had come in 1869 with her parents, following the promise of free and fertile land. She had never imagined all those years ago that a treasured plant that gave berries could grow like a noxious weed. Here they did. She supposed that was the blessing and curse of Oregon--the land was so good for growing things that you had to be careful of what you let spring up. Her family certainly didn’t have the extra time to keep one of the great bushes in check, no matter how much she liked blackberries.
Most farmers in her area held the same view. Farmer Green was the only exception. He had raised twelve children on those blackberries and hated to see the monstrous tangle of a bush cleared away. He trimmed it and kept it, and since he and his wife couldn't eat all the berries, he said any person who wanted could fill a single tin cup full of berries to take home. Just one cup per person per day, please. A hundred moments of sweetness for anyone who would come.
So it was that Mary found herself leading three very excited young children to the berry bush at Farmer Green's every morning. Each held his or her tin cup in chubby fists, scuttling down the hard-packed dirt road. At the beginning of the summer, Mary was not fond of this exercise. There was a bundle of work at home, and the children were still too young to be of much help. Her husband, Paul, had taken on an extra plot of land—at least three times larger than their old property. It was a marvelous blessing that they had been able to come by the land, but even so, she couldn't help but feel that they had bitten off more than they could chew.
The children had heard from neighbors about Farmer Green's berry bush. They had so few real treats these days, and it was free, so Mary found herself leaving stacks of dishes, laundry, and a host of other chores. It seemed a poor use of time, but as always, she did what must be done and faithfully saw her children across the stream to Farmer Green's bush.
On the walk this morning Mary was fretting over the fact that the firewood was nearly spent and Paul had a full day of work ahead of him. Besides her usual load of dishes and laundry, she had a fireplace that desperately needed to be cleaned out and weeding to do in her garden. Mary was a small woman and didn't relish the thought of chopping the firewood herself, but it needed doing and she would do it. Her shoulders ached from pulling Tom, her little two-year-old, out of the fireplace so many times. She really didn’t want to walk to the blackberry place today.
Mary sighed as she walked. She could see a little soot now on Tom's sleeve and face as he stopped swinging his little tin cup around to look at a magpie perched on a post. He picked a pebble up off the road and began eying the bird with a grin. She loved that chubby blonde boy, but, oh, was he an imp sometimes!
Suddenly, Mary's daughter seized upon Tom and swiped at the soot on his face. Even though she wasn't quite five yet, her motherly instincts were strong. Offended, little Tom shrieked and ran further down the path screaming, “NO EYES! No wipe face! No, Eyes, NO.”
She called out after him with equal gusto. “Get back here, Tommy! Your face is DIRTY, Tommy!”
Eyes caught up to him and tried again. Tommy kicked some dirt at his sister and stuck his tongue out. Mary’s oldest, Samuel, seemed to snap out of his latest daydream and dutifully jogged after his siblings to settle the ensuing quarrel.
Tommy called his sister “Eyes” because he couldn't quite say “Eliza” yet. The moniker had stuck, and the whole family now found themselves calling her “Eyes.” It was fitting for a girl who could rat out her brothers for every naughty thing they had ever done in great detail.
Little Eliza was named after Mary's younger sister who had died on the long trek to Oregon. It had been nearly twenty years since then, and still, not a day passed when Mary didn't remember burying her sister's corpse in the cold, hard earth. The death had been so sudden—such a shock. The reality that she was gone hadn't really sunk in until they had loaded the wagon and left Eliza's grave behind. She still never spoke of her sister. Dear Eliza, with her impish grin and big blue eyes.
Little Eyes did not much look like Mary's sister. Tom and Samuel both had that blonde hair but Eyes had hair the color of coffee, smooth and straight, and her dark eyes were large and striking. They were nearly as black as the blackberries that Farmer Green gave away. Mary both liked and disliked her daughter's nickname. She had wanted to honor and remember her sister in some small way, but hearing Eliza's name could sometimes be painful.
Mary watched Eyes resume her hunt to wipe the soot off Tommy’s face. The two darted off, leaving their older brother speaking mid-sentence. Poor Samuel finally threw up his hands and gave up trying to make them get along. They were too excited. The walk to get blackberries every morning was their favorite time of day. Mary and her sister had always loved berries too. She remembered long afternoons at her grandparents' house when the two girls would pick and eat fresh berries until their fingertips were stained with the juice. At the time it had felt as though those afternoons would never end. That was before they had left for Oregon.
In a way, that made her glad that her children could have this time together to enjoy the blackberries. It wasn't quite the same, but they loved it. This was good for them, Mary told herself. They needed something to look forward to. Firewood could wait.
Finally, they crossed the old wooden bridge over the stream. Mary physically forced herself to slow down, stop fretting, and meet Farmer Green's eyes as they approached his cabin. He had set a wooden chair out next to the road where the massive blackberry bush had crept so that he could greet all the neighbors who came.
Farmer Green was an elderly man with a long, white beard and a shining scalp that looked like it had donated all of its foliage to the cause of such a beard. He had a twinkle in his eye, tough leather skin, a big cane, and plenty enough help and money saved up that he didn't have to do much besides supervise these days.
“Mornin', Mary.” The old man smiled as she approached.
Little Tom ran right up to Farmer Green and gave him a wide grin. “I s'pose you want your berries, eh, young man?”
Tom's eyes nearly disappeared behind his rosy cheeks as his grin widened further still, and he nodded.
Mary chided him. “Tommy, what do we tell Farmer Green?”
Tom paused for only a second before nearly calling out in a high-pitched shriek, “PLEASE?!”
Mary cringed just a little. He was only two, but still. Luckily, Eyes came to the rescue.
“Thank you for the yummy berries. It's most a-peach-ated,” the four-year-old girl said with a clumsy curtsy.
Farmer Green laughed. “Well! What a proper little lady!” He bent over a little and whispered conspiratorially. “I found a spot with big ol’ ripe ones over on the left side there in the shadows this mornin’.”
Eyes gave him a sly smile before darting off. Samuel nodded to Farmer Green and then followed Eyes to the spot he'd mentioned. Mary picked Tommy up off the ground as he yanked a fistful of berries off the bush and shoved the entire bunch of them straight into his mouth.
“Tommy, don't be such a greedy thing. It is very nice of Farmer Green to share with everyone. You shouldn't take all the berries for yourself.”
Tommy whined. “But yummy! SO yummy!”
Mary sighed and turned to the old farmer. “It really is very kind of you to share these. Thank you so much.”
“My pleasure,” the old farmer said, plopping back down into his wooden chair. “Best part of my day is seeing these young'ns come fill their little cups.”
Mary smiled appreciatively. Farmer Green had more grandchildren than anyone she had ever heard of by now. He was never critical when children forgot their manners, though he would remind them of the rules and helped keep them in line when needed. Mary quite liked the man.
“Whoa,” Samuel said as he pulled a giant blackberry from the bush. Eyes admired it with him for a second before finding one even larger and blacker than her brother's and secreting it in her tin cup.
Mary joined her children, and soon they were ready to head back home. For a very brief moment, they each had a cup full of berries. Little Tommy devoured the contents of his cup with gusto. His entire hands quickly grew purple from the juice on the way home as Mary kept him from running into his siblings along the road back home. It wasn't long before he had stained his shirt, which made Mary groan a little on the inside.
His messy little smile reminded her so much of her sister though.
The smell of the blackberries was in the air, and it smelled just as it had in Mary's childhood. Quietly, she reached into her own cup and pulled out a single, beautiful blackberry and looked at it for a moment. She never ended up eating these herself. Memories tugged on her. The moment ended as Tommy stretched out his little sticky purple hands towards her. He paused for a moment, thinking hard.
“Please Momma?” He asked. “Big berry...please?”
Mary’s heart sank a little. Tommy had remembered his manners. His cup of berries was empty at this point. She gave him the berry. Before she knew it, she was distributing her berries between the three children who had all eaten theirs. It was a long walk for little legs, and fruits and vegetables were so lacking in their diets these days. They had a small garden, but needed to clear more space for a better one. Of course she should be willing to give her berries up to her children. That's what mothers were for, and they were good children. So why did she feel so disappointed to see her cup empty at the end of the walk?
Back home at last, Mary organized the children and kept them doing chores. Mary scrubbed shirts and dresses in the wash bin and hauled more water from the well. Mary pulled Tommy out of the fireplace and wiped the soot from his hands and feet. She was trying desperately to pull all the weeds out of their tiny garden with Samuel and Eyes when she noticed the door to the house open. Of course, Tommy was inside flinging soot from the fireplace onto the floor. She pulled him out again and started a fire. She took the stock pot she had sitting in the kitchen out and started a stew. Her shoulders ached. Outside, the sun began sinking low. Mary gave Samuel a strict charge to mind Tommy around the fire and went out to chop wood.
Paul finally arrived home a little after dark, looking rather satisfied with himself. Mary greeted him with a relieved kiss, and the children eagerly gathered around him to hear how he had protected their orchard from birds and finally tracked down the big bear that was always lurking around.
“...I've still got several repairs to make to the fence around the south side of the property. We keep getting deer in there, and if we aren't careful to keep them out we could draw wolves...”
The land here was lush and green, but goodness there were a lot of animals to keep out.
“...it looks as though I am going to need to pull out that big stump on the southwest corner...”
That would mean preparing dinner for guests one night in exchange for their help with the stump. Mary let out a deep sigh. She was just so tired...
“...I am also thinking that eventually we can have a little swimming hole down by...”
Goodness, what extra work and problems would a swimming hole bring into her life? What if a neighbor's child drowned in it? Good grief, what if Tommy drowned in it? Not even Samuel knew how to swim yet. Who would show them?
She sat down and rubbed her temples. A headache was starting. Paul stopped speaking and walked over, concerned. “Mary—are you all right?”
Air filled her lungs, and slowly, she let it all go. “Yes, I'm fine, Paul. Just tired.”
They ate and then they read from the family Bible. Mary ran her fingers over some of the penned names in the front pages before turning to their spot in Luke.
Later that night, Mary looked out from her bed at her children sleeping on feather mats on the floor, each with their special quilts. Eyes curled up into a ball, her braided hair barely visible as she clutched her tattered rag doll with a death grip in her sleep. They were such good children. She wished they had proper beds.
Mary woke up when Paul kissed her head around dawn. He was headed back out to start digging around the stump. She wanted to keep sleeping, but things needed to be done, and Mary would tend to that which needed doing. Just as she always did.
Samuel milked the cow and brought in the milk. They skimmed the cream, and Eyes came to help her mother churn butter.
“Momma, why do I need to churn butter? Can't you do it?” She complained as she worked the handle.
Mary sighed. “If I did it, then you would lose the opportunity to learn how to churn butter.”
Eyes wrinkled her little freckled nose. “But why do I need to know how?”
“So when you're a mother and have a family, you can make butter for them.”
“Oh—well,” Eyes said, matter-of-factly. “I'm not going to be a mother.”
Mary nearly fell over. Eyes was constantly mothering her dolly and her baby brother.
Eyes looked up at her mother, unabashed. “All mothers do is work and give all their berries away. I like to eat berries. And I don't like doing work all the time. Sometimes I like to play.”
Mary was silent. How to explain? Mothers love so much . . . mothers sacrifice so that their children can have . . . hard work is important . . . sacrifice and hard work . . . life is about . . .
It all died on Mary's lips. Sacrifice. Though they looked nothing alike, Mary felt that she was staring directly at her little sister in that moment. Eyes had stopped churning the butter and was looking up to her. For a rebuttal? For an explanation? Mary didn't know what her daughter wanted—what she needed her to say. So she said nothing.
Eyes’s words played in Mary's head over and over again.
Isn't that what motherhood was? Isn't that what life was about—giving all you had to those things you found most important in your life? Isn't that why they had come? Isn't that what Eliza had given her life for? For future generations to have a new and better life in Oregon?
These questions churned in Mary's head as she churned the butter. Eyes’s words plodded along her thoughts as she herded her children onto the dirt road with their tin cups to get their morning blackberries.
Mary had always done what needed to be done. She had tried to give her children everything she could and shelter them from many of the harsher things she had endured.
Farmer Green smiled and patted Tommy's dirty-blonde mop of hair with his leathery hand when they arrived. Such a wonder he and his wife had managed to prune and care for the bramble-like bush with twelve children. The old man grinned mischievously as he pulled a berry off the bush and popped it into his mouth. Tommy did the same, returning the grin.
Her children did have good lives. Fresh berries. Feathered mats. Daily meals and a loving family. There was much they didn't have—but they had everything they needed. The children were happy.
But the way Little Eyes had looked at her that morning haunted Mary. She hadn't been accusing her mother of anything—just stating the facts as she understood them. Mothers didn't get to play. Mothers didn't get to eat berries. Mothers weren't happy. So who would want to be a mother?
But if no one is the mother, Mary thought, then how can humanity go on? What would become of the children?
It was easier sometimes to hand her children all the berries, to keep on working and moving forward as she always had. To prune, to weed, to help life go on. But for all of her efforts, something crucial was missing. Little Eyes had noticed, and Mary could feel the lack if she stopped to notice. There was a part of her, hidden, like a blackberry tucked away past all the thorns. Could she reach it?
Mary and her children filled their cups with blackberries. Little Eyes watched her mother, her big dark eyes ever discerning.
Once Tom's cup was full, Mary took it from him and held it to her chest. Tommy looked panicked. “Wait! Momma, mine!”
“Yes, it's yours,” Mary reassured him. “I'm just going to help you hold it for a moment. Samuel, Eliza...please don't eat any berries yet.”
“But they smell so good!”
“Could I just eat one?”
They walked in silence a little ways before Eyes spoke up. “Are we in trouble?”
Mary laughed a little. “No, sweetie. You're not in trouble.”
Tommy reached up for his cup, his mouth knotted up on a pout.
Mary gently turned his hands downward. “Soon. Every day we go to Farmer Green's house for berries, and you always eat up your berries before we get home. Today I want you to try something with me. I want you to take the time to really enjoy your berries.”
Samuel, Eyes, and Tommy all watched her intently as Mary put one of her own blackberries to her lips. Juice erupted in her mouth as she bit down on the little berry. Memories of her sister flooded her mind, and she nearly cried. She swallowed the berry.
“When I eat blackberries,” Mary said, “I remember all the wonderful times I had playing with my little sister at my grandparents' house.”
Samuel's eyebrows furrowed for a moment, and then he looked up at Mary. “You have a sister? Why haven't I met her?”
“Momma has a SISTER?!” Eyes repeated with an excited shock that only a four-year-old can replicate.
Mary breathed in slowly through her nose. She held the air in for just a moment, not quite ready to let everything out.
“Yes. Her name was Eliza.”
“Just like Eyes?” Samuel asked, looking at his sister.
“Yes, I named Little Eliza after my sister.”
Eyes stared up at her mother for a moment, her blackberries completely forgotten in her hand. “But where is she? Where is Big Eliza?”
Images flooded Mary's mind. A mound of rocks. A small body placed gently into an old crate. A shallow grave. A large stone with a name hastily carved into it. Cold snow blowing into her eyes and mixing with hot tears. The creak of the wagon wheels as the oxen slowly trudged away. Eliza's mother, completely unable to speak, marching sullenly down the trail while clinging to her knitted shawl. Mary's breath coming in small spurts.
They didn't need to know everything now.
Mary pulled another blackberry from her cup and placed it into her mouth. She felt a little of the coldness of that day fade in her mind as the sweet juices ran down her throat. “Auntie Eliza died before any of you were born. She's with God.”
There was a silence that not even Tommy broke for several seconds as they trudged down the road. The toddler even remembered to carefully step over lifted tree roots and didn't trip. Finally, Eyes spoke again.
“What was Auntie Eliza like?”
Mary smiled as she handed Tommy his cup. “Go ahead and eat your berries. But do it slowly. Make them last.”
Tommy tried to eat more slowly but had great difficulty with the task. Samuel and Eyes did better and began putting the berries in their mouths with near reverence as Mary told her children about warm summer days spent with her impish little sister. She told them of games they played, of pranks they had pulled, and of songs sung as they trudged in worn shoes along the Oregon Trail. She didn't tell them everything—not yet. But as they walked and listened to one another, Mary ate blackberries.