When my mother was raising children I remember she was great at marking time. She understood ceremony and held up a barometer about what mattered to her. Dinner was the most important meal and a lot of tension and energy went into each one. Tables were always set with dishes—never paper—unless you were picnicking. No glass jars or cartons were ever allowed and meals arrived on platters with serving spoons. Time seemed to stop for a few brief hours after all the preparations were over, and everyone took a collective sigh and soaked in the moment or occasion. Holidays and birthdays were magnified under this same barometer of marking time, as if to say: notice this, before it passes for good. Just because another one will follow doesn’t diminish the importance of this one. If you ignore it, knowing that the moment will soon go by, you won’t necessarily miss it but you’ll never understand how you could have appreciated it.
Living on the lake offers year-round natural events that fit into this equation of marking time. And nothing is more fleeting or more satisfying than raspberry season. It starts as a few stray berries begin to dot the road or poke through some bramble near the mailbox. This is the beginning of a tiny two week window that offers a bounty like no other. After the first raspberries of the season open, it takes a constant vigil to know when to begin picking. Last week, driving around the lake, it happened.
“Look,” I said, pointing for Quinn’s benefit. “That’s the color we’ve been waiting for.”
“Let’s go tomorrow,” she said.
“Are you sure we can be here?” Quinn asked, walking cautiously behind me into the overgrown yard.
“Nobody lives here,” I said.
“That wasn’t my question,” she said.
“Look.” I nodded towards an enormous area of bramble glistening with crimson notes, stretching out along the water’s edge. Quinn stopped worrying and started picking. A warm breeze circled around us as we clutched clumps of deep red berries that fell off the vine into our baskets with very little prompting. We picked in different sections of the large patch, so we couldn’t see each other as we talked about the past and recounted the years we had been continuing this tradition. It did not go unnoticed that this would probably be our last opportunity to do this together. Quinn is moving to Virginia in under a month and probably won’t be back home this time next year.
Some years we had a lot of competition for the berries and we have had to be willing to venture deeper into a patch.
“That man across the street is eating all our berries.” I would say peering out the front window.
“Well technically they’re not ‘our’ berries. He’s entitled to pick some too,” Quinn said. This comment was usually followed by a short pause and a solid plan to get out there and garner our share.
Raspberry picking is not for the faint of heart. To produce a healthy and satisfying yield takes energy and determination, plus a few sensible rules. When we first started raspberry picking fourteen years ago, we stumbled for a while. Jackson, Quinn and I dressed in summer clothing and started walking around the lake in search of the elusive food. The picking was easy and we stayed along the edge, picking one by one. Kaplink, Kaplank, Kaplunk into a small pail we all shared. It reminded me of the children’s book by Robert McClousky, Blueberries for Sal. Quinn was always good for around twenty berries before she fatigued or was scratched. Jackson ventured deeper and produced a bit higher yield but after half an hour he would peer into the pail.
“Is this enough for jam and a pie?”
“Quinn didn’t pick enough,” he cried.
Rule number one: everyone carries their own pail, paper bag or basket.
The first time we brought the berries home we dumped them into a bowl and placed them on a shelf in the refrigerator, only to discover the small pile of red beauties overrun with tiny green bugs that couldn’t quite figure out what had happened to the warm weather.
Raspberry bushes like to hang out with poison ivy and they grow on branches that protect themselves with sharp needle like thorns. As the children grew our prowess to collect more and more berries grew. We would emerge with scratches around our knees and ankles and the occasional patch of poison ivy.
Rule Number Three: Wear high socks and sneakers, long pants, a light weight long sleeved shirt and a hat.
Wearing long pants and sleeves in July can be quite uncomfortable in itself so always try to rise early in the morning before the sun gets too high and pick for about an hour. Anything longer can diminish any pleasure that might be achieved during the experience. Once you return home, enjoy a swim or if possible an outdoor shower to flush away any residual stickiness.
Once the picking and washing are complete the decision on what to bake fills the kitchen with delicious anticipation. If the berries are picked early and they have a predominate orange color, then jam with added sugar is your best bet. But if the color resembles garnets, then fresh over ice cream or yogurt is the way to go. Having a large colander full of clean wild raspberries can yield two jars of jam, a pie, muffins and several days worth of fresh berries for breakfast. In our house there was initially a bit of a squabble over who picked the most and who was entitled to more.
“Father didn’t help pick, can I eat another piece of pie?”
This comment usually elicited a reference to The Little Red Hen story and Rob would raise his hand in a solemn pledge. “I’ll wash the dishes.” It’s an easy promise to make when the last piece of wild raspberry pie is staring you in the face. But really that’s the best part about picking: sharing. We looked forward to returning home, dumping our full paper lunch bags into the collective pile, and listening to Rob or whoever happens to be visiting coo.
“This tastes so much better than grocery store raspberries,” my sister Susan said once as she closed her eyes while taking a bite of our homemade pie. “It’s like another food.”
“Right?” we all agreed, exhaling our collective sigh, really pleased that someone else understood our efforts.
Rule number Four: Always share your bounty—it makes it all the more rewarding. I’m glad we have house guests right now because you need a willing audience to help you mark the time. In another week it will be gone.