A Hard-Won Taste of Summer
Being the youngest, and the smallest, picking the raspberries was my job on our farm in New Hampshire. I had picked strawberries before, when we lived in Wisconsin. We would drive for a long time in our blue station wagon to some remote berry farm. The rows were padded with straw, and the berries easy to reach. The old woman who weighed our baskets at the end of the day would only wink at the sight of my cheeks - bulging with strawberries. It was pleasant.
Not so with those raspberries. There was no escaping them. They grew, or tangled, right outside the front door, their red fruit tempting, their sharp thorns threatening. Picking raspberries was no longer pleasant. It was a chore. My chore.
Our farm had 32 acres of rolling hills framed by woods. The seasons brought scenes of northern lights shooting over the barn on cold winter nights; the changing face of the lake across the road; and grazing horses slapping their tails at summer flies.
The unwieldy raspberry patches lurked alongside the shed we used as a garage and on a hill behind the house. My parents oohed and ahhed over this delicacy in our backyard, but I, keeper of the berries, didn't like their taste. They didn't have the firmness of strawberries, and their bumpy shapes reminded me of fat ants. The thorns along the frosted branches curled at the tips like the claws of the kittens in the barn, but they were sharper. Wearing long pants was a must in the raspberry patch. And no sandals, either.
Picking had to be done early, before the dew had dried in the hot sun and the birds had swooped in for breakfast. I considered the birds' visits nothing less than highway robbery. And despite my dexterity, the brambles set traps for me. Low-growing vines snaked along the ground under the wild-grape leaves and coiled around my ankles. Wrestling and wrenching free left me with vine burns above my socks and the sting of nettles that had penetrated the layer of dirt-crusted denim.
The raspberries were fickle. Even if they were completely red, they might not let go of their green caps. If the berries were too ripe, they crumbled, staining my fingertips deep red. Raspberries can't be picked from the bushes. They must be negotiated.
Staggering back from making deals with the raspberry bushes, the brambles, and the birds, I would find my family eagerly waiting. With cereal bowls and poised spoons, they would say, "that's it?" - the details of my ripped jeans, stained shoes, and snarled hair ignored. Any leftovers went into the fridge in an old wooden bowl where snacking fingers reached for them all day. If there weren't enough for the stash in the fridge, I was sent back out to hunt down more elusive berries.
But there were obvious rewards. My mom made the best raspberry pie. Raspberries appeared on everything, from cereal and ice cream to yogurt and peanut-butter sandwiches. Soon, I couldn't remember a time when I hadn't liked raspberries.
In late August, the bushes quietly ended their summer offerings. And the scratches on my hands and legs would heal. During the summers when the harvest was truly plenty, we would freeze the surplus raspberries (this took much discipline). Then, in the middle of winter, out would come those berries. Frosted white and frozen in chunks, they served perfectly as ice cubes for ginger ale.
AFTER I left for college, we sold the farm. The raspberry bushes were forgotten in the rush of packing. I've been traveling from place to place ever since. Recently, I dug out my old boots and returned to see the farmhouse for the first time since we moved seven years ago. The barn looked tired, the shed had been torn down, and the place where raspberry patches grew was an empty space. Recently planted pines marched in rows out in the big pasture. The land was still and quiet. Nothing remained that reminded me of dusty summer days picking raspberries and fighting nettles.
But a few weeks ago, a friend offered me a chilled late-winter raspberry. When I bit into it, memories exploded in my mouth. I tasted summer. I was home.