Blackberry Days of Summer

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It would be a marvelous thing if I could create a coffee table-sized book of happy, carefree moments from my childhood, but I can’t. By the time I came along, my mom and her first husband (not my father) seemed to be ummmm… winding down their marriage. IMG_20150525_174741_kindlephoto-19231427When I was eleven, they divorced. Then they both up and quickly remarried. Need I say this wasn’t a great time for me?

Seriously, after twenty-six years together, I kind of expected a bit more introspection before either would even consider marrying again; and I absolutely hoped for a little, “Hey, sweetie, we know this will affect your life in a major way, so let’s talk about it…”  Yeah, no, that didn’t really happen.

Adding insult to my emotional injuries, I’m fairly certain that three to five months before tying the knot again (especially with kids involved) doesn’t constitute cogitation, self-examination, meditation, deep contemplation, or any other deliberative act one might undertake before slipping a ring on one’s finger and dragging one’s child/ren into another relationship. But, hey! I was just eleven, what did I know about anything? Well, nothing except what it was like to live in a broken, busted, dispirited family not of my choosing.

There are millions of us out there, kids of divorce, and I feel I can say with absolute surety that at least fifty percent of those probably had it much, much worse than I. In all likelihood some of my struggles in processing the whole mess created by the adults in my young life stemmed from my personality type; some kids just don’t do well with sudden changes and being kept in the dark about important things. Even still, it took a fair bit of therapy in my 20’s and early thirties, and a whole lot of journaling and praying and scripture studying for me to start to move beyond what were some terribly difficult years.

Out of my experiences has grown a few parenting mantras. One of these is, “I want my kids to need less therapy than I, and for my grandkids to need none.” My second favorite mantra, and one of the prime reasons I have been a stay at home mom for sixteen years, is, “If my kids are going to be screwed up, I want it to be all my fault.” I’m rethinking that last one, to be sure, as I’m finding out certain children just don’t need that much outside help! Nevertheless, twenty-three years of marriage, a college degree, two kiddos, and a deep and abiding faith in God later, and I’ve got the past mostly…in the past.

Anyway, this post is about a few of my pleasant childhood memories, and for that I must start with a description of where I spent my “formative” years. I grew up in a small town northwest of Ft. Worth; Azle was its name, and it was the epitome of southern and redneck.

My neighborhood, which was called Pelican Bay, was way out in the sticks. It was essentially an over-sized, roughly one mile wide by two miles long, mobile home park on the edge of Eagle Mountain Lake (where I spent every spring dreading tornado season). Mother and her husband, who had just retired from the Air Force, moved out there from Shepherd A.F.B. in Wichita Falls, a larger, more sun-baked version of Azle, two hours northwest of Ft. Worth. Both were originally from the winter wonderland of Payette, ID,  so in retirement they opted to settle somewhere more hospitable in the colder months, and Azle was it.

Unfortunately, they had been sold a bill of goods about Pelican Bay’s riding stables, lake access, private club house, beach-side restaurant, cheap acreage, and paved roads. In the end, they, and some other suckers like them got shafted. The Bay never was more than a mobile home park with crappy roads peppered with pot holes the size of Buicks and big weedy lots in the middle of flea, tick, and scorpion prairie-land nothingness. Although, I will admit, during my time there, despite Pelican Bay’s deficient amenities, many, not all, but many of the mobile homes and lots were actually quite nice, underpinning, fences, landscaping and all. I’m sad to say none of it has held up. To make things worse, a friend recently sent me a link to an article about Pelican Bay having been part of a toxic waste dump before they “developed” it into the lakeside paradise of my misty water-colored memories. Joy.

The cake from my 25th high school reunion in 2014. Gads! Am I that old already?

Despite how nice our lot or house might have been, I had brick and mortar dreams, and in my teens I grew to despise everything about our tiny corner of Tarrant County. But in elementary school both Azle and Pelican Bay were home to my friends, some family, the teachers I loved, Karen, the bus driver who took me to and from school for almost my entire life and gave me my first cat, one high school, one middle school, one junior high, and two elementary schools, which were vicious rivals (our third elementary school came along when I was in third grade)– and we were all proud to be Hornets. From the smallest pee-wee football player to the biggest high school lineman, we were all decked out in green, white, and black. Azle was Hornet Town, U.S.A. For better and worse, most of the kids I started school with in kindergarten were also in my graduating class.

The neighborhood store closest to my house was a mile away near the lake, and I would ride my bike there for candy just about every day in the summer. One of the perks to that trip was “torturing” the minnows held in tanks outside of the store for the fishermen. By walking from one end of the tank to the other, you could cause the tiny fish to flee en masse to the oppose side. There was also one monster bug zapper hanging above the tanks, which glowed purple in the night and filled the air with rapidly occurring snaps and pops as mayflies and June bugs did their best Icarus impersonations every night during the long summer play season.

I don't think Coppertone made a "burqa" level SPF in 1978!

I don’t think Coppertone made a “burqa” level SPF in 1978!

Our neighborhood pool didn’t have a life guard on duty, thank goodness! My older brothers and our friends would ride up there (not necessarily together) and spend countless hours every summer. My girlfriends and I would have underwater tea parties, play Marco Polo, and see how long we could hold our breath under the water. We would also practice our crazy dives off of the (gasp!) diving board, doing our best to avoid belly flopping. I would inevitably get sun-burned to a crisp (because melanin-deficient red heads should never use Pina Colada Coppertone), but go right back out the next day. Heavens! Did I get some hellacious blisters?!

Anyway, around the corner and down the dirt road from our trailer was a blackberry patch. I can’t say for sure, but that patch was probably an eighth of an acre- pretty substantial for what seemed to me to be a spontaneously growing spot of heaven on earth.  Just about the time school would get out, back when humans ran our schools and we were out by Memorial Day, is when the berries would turn from hard, red, and inedible to dark and luscious, ready to be picked.

Along with other neighborhood kids, my brothers and I would brave the mosquitoes and the thorns (and I would try not to think about snakes), and we would fill Mother’s Tupperware tubs as full as we could with plump, ripe berries, eating at least as many straight from the vine as we delivered hwallpaper_20080925035435_18634803912ome. I always hoped for sour ones over the sweet, after all, I was the girl who ate lemons, but it was hard to resist those big, sweet berries with their cells so swollen with juice they were the size of toddler’s fist! They were quite simply: divine.

My mom would take our cache and make cobblers and jar after jar of jam, complete with paraffin wax caps. However, my taste buds did and still do prefer raw things to cooked. Raw cookie dough, raw batters (all kinds), raw bread dough, raw berries- salmonella be damned! Cook the item and it quickly loses its appeal, as far as I am concerned. Well, unless we’re talking about meat, poultry, and fish. At that point, please, please, bake, broil, baste or barbecue away!

We got a few summer’s worth of berry gathering out of that berry patch, but not much more than that. I seem to recall a conversation about the actual owner of that land, and ergo the berries, being 51TrXzGpocL._SY300_upset that people were harvesting his fruit and we had to quit “trespassing.” Later, at one point in my ‘tweens,’ I actually went Trick or Treating to a small double-wide on that very spot. It’s like the vines were the Wicked Witch of the East and someone dropped a house on them. The horror of knowing their house was sitting atop my beloved berry patch was a perfect Halloween ‘trick.’

As an adult, I’ve planted two blackberry bushes of my own. Having a memory of pain only slightly faded by time, I was smart enough to select the thorn-less cultivar ‘Navajo’ for my gardens. In childhood, it was ‘the bitter with the sweet,’ but now I know there are plenty of de-thorned alternatives, which allow berry lovers to have their cake and eat it, too.

The bush shown above is in its third fruiting season. I snapped that pic about a week and a half before the berries started turning dark, at which point my oldest daughter’s job became “fighting the mockers.” With bowls in hand, she would rush into the yard, scaring away the pesky, beastly mockingbirds who insisted upon stealing from my vines. Our cats are no good at that sort of thing, so my blondie would have to do. And she “did” with vigor!

What you see to the right is two day’s worth of berries. We were pulling a good half gallon a day for at least eight days, and just slightly less than that for another seven to ten days. I gave away many, many bags of these beauties during late May and early June. Our carpet installers two weeks ago each got a bag; lawn guys, math tutor, massage therapist, chiropractor, scripture group, cello teacher- bags for all! I was giving away so much that I almost forgot to keep somblackberriese for us.

As much as I love my berries fresh, I did consent to make one cobbler. Whiny oldest objected to the paleo recipe, so she went without. Younger daughter and I got it all. The girls and I discussed making some freezer jam, but nothing ever became of that. Could be I got sad every time I thought of boiling my shiny berries into oblivion…in sugar. Mostly though, just like my brothers and I once did, we simply ate them straight off the vine (and out of the bowls in the fridge).

I checked yesterday and only got a small handful off my vines. Today, there were none; our berry picking season has officially come to a close. The few remaining berries in the fridge are losing their tartness, so I guess it’s time to make another cobbler and wrap things up with a bow. It’s going to have to be a small one though…and very, very paleo! 😉

Bummed as I am about waiting another year for blackberry season to start in my backyard, I have two things to console me. First, Blackberries only fruit on new canes. Every year the old canes die off after fruiting and fresh ones begin shooting up near the end of the season. As I type, new canes are working their way out of the ground, giving me a glimpse of how much bigger my haul will be in 2016. Unfortunately, due the severe weather we’ve had recently, I’ve already lost a new cane…and it was as tall as me! Second, I have my memories of those more simple, more carefree days in the late 1970’s, hunting through thorn- ridden berry bushes with my brothers, cramming as many sweet and sour orbs into my mouth as I could before getting yelled at to “Save some for mom!” Fruiting season 2016 is only eleven months away. I think I can wait.

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