© Dmae Roberts 2011
When my mom died, I tried to find activities that would help me with my grief so I went blueberry picking.
I enjoy berry season during Oregon summers. My experiences with picking began when I was child in the strawberry fields near Eugene. My mom took my brother and me strawberry picking to make money for our family. It wasn’t exactly fun getting up at dawn to catch the bus to the fields. Nor was it great that my mom forced us to pick non-stop so we could earn the most money. But you did get to eat as many fresh strawberries as you wanted. Then when we moved to the country and my mom had her own garden. We would harvest produce and pick wild blackberries on our small two-acre farm.
(Photo: Richard Jensen)
After I moved to Portland, I ventured every once in a while to U-Pick orchards on Sauvie Island to get produce. This was before Farmer’s markets were in nearly every neighborhood in Portland. I lost track of picking produce in the summers while I was taking care of my mom when her breast cancer returned after a 10-year absence. She struggled with her illness for three years before she passed away in May. That was the summer I decided to go pick blueberries.
I didn’t grow up with these berries. I found their taste and perfectly round shape fascinating. They also seemed easier to pick than strawberries or blackberries. No putting up with back-bending pain or razor sharp thorns. So I went a farm in Gresham on a sunny day. The owner showed me how to pick them, nervous that U-pickers came to ravage her rows of beautiful tall blueberry trees. She instructed me to hold each berry carefully in my fingers and slowly wipe away the sheen with my thumb to make sure they were truly blue rather than a deceptive purple. Blueberries might appear blue in between the sunlight and the shadows cast through leaves. It takes vigilant inspection to get truly ripe berries. The owner also cautioned me to use a delicate touch so I didn’t pull away a cluster of green berries while picking.
At first I was a little irritated by all the berry instructions. I came to the blueberry farm to make me feel better, not worry about some berries. But as I started on my assigned blueberry tree and concentrated on selecting the right little blue marbles, my grief turned into something else. I realized the owner was right. There had to be a certain care to this task. It wasn’t a matter of grabbing a berry and moving onto the next one. There was more to this act of careful inspection and finding the right one that would easily roll off the vine and into your basket. Somehow the gentleness and delicacy of the task was healing, nurturing. I spent about an hour there at the farm thinking about berries and how much my mom would have enjoyed this activity. By the time I quit, had a couple pounds of beautiful berries. And I felt better.
The next summer, my husband planted our own blueberry plants. It took two years to bear abundant fruit every summer. I now look forward to the time spent in the yard picking blueberries. I inspect each berry and think about my mom and that time I was in grief and how the act of picking gave me comfort. It’s now a way of remembering her loss and letting go of the grief.
This summer my friend, Carolyn Holzman, died suddenly from a heart attack. She was a gifted theatre artist and teacher. Carolyn worked with Do Jump Theatre and produced her own plays full of whimsy and magic. For the last several years, she was an adjunct professor at Portland State University.
There was no warning to her death. It shocked her husband, her family and friends of which there were many. At her memorial, her family shared intimate stories of her life. Some of those remembrances brought out quirky laughter that was the essence to Carolyn’s creativity. When we in the audience heard these joyful stories, it was a reminder that despite the pain, we were all better human beings simply by knowing her. Just talking with Carolyn was a delight. Seeing her movement and theatre pieces took you to the best part of childhood and the happiest of days.
This summer during blueberry season, I’ve not only thought about my mom, but also of Carolyn and her sudden passing. Now as the blueberries become fewer in number in these waning days before autumn, I hold onto each berry with care, as I do grief itself. I hold dear and think, “this one is ready; it’s time to let it go.”
And every summer when the fruit returns, I will remember the loss with a certain delicate kind of joy once more.