Berry Picking

By Joyce Maynard, "Berry Picking,"July/August 2011

Author Joyce Maynard's essay on picking berries with her daughter.

When my daughter Audrey was small we made a pilgrimage every August to Pitcher Mountain where wild blueberries grew. Even a 3-year-old, motivated by the prospect of berries, could manage the hike to the top, where the best bushes could be found. Our container of choice was usually a plastic milk jug with the opening cut large enough to get your hand in and a piece of rope looped through the handle so each of us could attach our jug to our waist. That left both hands free for gathering.

No question, wild blueberries take a lot longer to accumulate than the cultivated variety (particularly when one half of the picking team is a child who puts more berries in her mouth than in her jug). But there’s no contest which berry—wild or cultivated—makes the better pie. With berries as with children, you discover, good things come in small packages.

Every now and then—when the summer had brought just the right combination of sun and rain—we came home so loaded with berries that we could make jam, too, or freeze whole bagfuls to toss in pancakes and over oatmeal all through the long New Hampshire winters. Once or twice, though, it was all we could do to get a single pie’s worth of berries, the pickings were so slim. Berry yield has its ups and downs, same as life does.

Next: Time Marches On » [pagebreak]

My daughter was 11 when the divorce happened, and we moved from the farm in the country where she was born to a house in a town 30 miles away. We were still within range of Pitcher Mountain, but there came a point in our life together—the teenage years—when she and I were too much at odds to think of spending an afternoon on a hilltop together, dropping berries into our milk jugs. Maybe she worried I’d take the opportunity of having her alone to raise the topic of smoking pot, or ask about her boyfriend, or her plans for life. I am humbled to admit that, for a time there, I might even have taken advantage of our time alone to launch into some criticism of her father. If there is such a thing as a good divorce, ours wasn’t one of those.

More time passed. Summers found my daughter working and hanging out with friends in her free time. Then I moved to California, while she remained in New Hampshire, living in the little cabin out behind the house I’d shared with her dad all those years—working as a counselor with troubled kids, teaching yoga, following a diet of locally grown food.

Season after season when blueberries came ripe and I was 3,000 miles away, I had to make do with frozen wild blueberries from Trader Joe’s. Audrey had found other picking companions.

Next: Another Day on Pitcher Mountain » [pagebreak]

Then last summer I managed to be in the Granite State in mid-August. For my part, old wounds and battles from decades past seemed insignificant, measured against the backdrop of a whole life. Losses only clarified the preciousness of what endures: The cycle of the seasons. The glory of summer. A firstborn child, the berry-picking companion of my youth.

And so we planned to make a day of it on Pitcher Mountain together.

I was happy to see that for all the changes in our lives and the world around us there was still a hand-painted sign posted in the dirt parking lot, with a box for depositing 25 cents a pound for berries. The honor system.

Thirty years had passed since the first time I climbed that mountain with my little overall-wearing girl. She’s older now than I was the first time we ventured out to pick, though not too old to take my hand as we headed up the path together.

Next: A Reunion on the Mountain » [pagebreak]

The years have mellowed us both. Audrey at 32 readier to appreciate me, for all my failings now and in the past. I, at 56, able at last to simply take in the moment—mountain, sky, birds, berries, daughter—without needing anything more. We picked in silence for most of our time on the mountain, though I felt her presence as powerfully as the sun on my skin.

The other day—separated again by the distance between my coast and hers—I called her, as I often do now, for no reason but to hear her voice. She was fixing oatmeal with her boyfriend. “I was just thinking about you,” she said. “We still have a few packs of blueberries left in the freezer. The bag Tod just took out had a date on it from last August. We label them, so we can remember the days.”

I pictured her standing at the counter in her little cabin. Stirring in the fruit with a wooden spoon, pouring on the syrup she’d made by tapping the maples on her father’s farm.

They may be smaller, but the wild berries are definitely the most flavorful. All you need is a handful, to sweeten whatever’s in the bowl.

Joyce Maynard’s most recent book is a novel, The Good Daughters, coming out in paperback in July. She lives in Mill Valley, California.