It’s a hot July in North Carolina. That’s nothing new. These days as I walk through the woods, I see wild blackberries growing along the path. It’s blackberry picking season, which is also a season full of childhood memories.
I remember as a young girl walking the railroad tracks up to Maw Beale’s house. Maw was my mother’s mother, although the story goes that she actually liked my daddy better. She was quite a character; she had a great sense of humor and was always laughing. She spent hours out in her vegetable garden in the summer. She would start her plants early in hot frames set back behind her house. I remember lifting the heavy lids off the frame and her telling me to keep it closed so that the plants stay warm. Once when I was “helping” her out in the garden, I saw her bend over and pinch some soil between her fingers and then put it on her tongue. “Yuck!” I screamed. “Why did you do that?” She laughed and told me she was testing it to see if she needed to add anything into her garden soil. She explained that she could tell what kind of soil it was by touching a little bit to her tongue. She even asked if I wanted to taste a little bit. Which, of course, I did especially after she made it sound so magical. It became a sort of parlor trick to impress my friends, until they got used to watching me eat dirt, and then it wasn’t fun or funny anymore.
I loved tagging along with Maw in her garden. I remember her out there every morning in her cut off polyester shorts and men’s button up shirt. Her long silvery hair always wrapped up tightly in a bun, little pieces escaping down around her face. She would take the back of her hand and push the unruly strands out of her face, and keep going on, often until it was dark. As she weeded, hoed, planted, and harvested early in the morning, she sang old church hymns like “When the Roll is Called up Yonder” and “I’ll Fly Away.” A young neighbor man known to keep late hours politely asked her, “Mrs. Beale, you know I like your singing, but can you keep it down in the early mornings?” I can picture Maw throwing her head back and laughing about this, perhaps trying to tone it down a bit, but probably still singing and praising as loudly as ever. She was her own person and a strong woman. She helped raise a family of six children, losing a daughter at only a few years old and a son in his 30’s. She was widowed in her 50’s. And yet, she kept going. I remember her as vibrant, earthy, funny, courageous, and very loving.
As an adult, I became an avid, ok, obsessed, gardener. I worked on a private historic estate for 14 years and loved every sweaty, soil-covered moment of it. I remember my mother looking at me one day after I returned home from work. I was covered in mud and exhausted. She shook her head and said, “You are just like my Mommy; she loved that hard-laboring man’s work, too.” It was a compliment and I still smile when I think about it, and Maw Beale. And, of course, wild blackberries make me smile, too.
Sometimes there’s more to blackberries than just blackberries. Blackberries are memories of another time, memories of people I knew and loved. And who loved me, too. A time when grandmas tasted soil and young girls hung out in gardens with grandmas. A time when families biked or walked together for miles at a time, not for sport or competition, but for communion, visiting grandparents, and for picking wild berries.
And although I don’t taste my garden soil anymore, I have it tested at our local County Extension Service, I do still garden. And boy, do I still love it, just as I love the memories that accompany me in my garden and on my walks.
There is an unseen thread that connects women as it weaves back through countless generations. We are products of our families, our stories, and our memories. As Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in her masterpiece, Women Who Run with the Wolves, “What you do today influences your matri-lineal lines in the future. The daughters of your daughters of your daughters are likely to remember you, and most importantly, follow in your tracks.”