Blackberries of My Youth

For many of us who were lucky enough to have precious time spent with the parents of our parents, Grandma and Grandpa’s house is a special place in our minds. Whether it’s the winter wonderland cabin, over the meadow and through the woods, or the tiny shotgun shack that always smelled of baked bread and savory casseroles, or the ranch house with the long dirt road that the family dog would chase you down as your car kicked up dust when you drove in, the sights and smells of that home can bring childhood memories sweeping back in an instant. For myself, Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a cozy home hidden behind a creek lit with the dimmest yellow lights and always warm, as if the fireplace that crackled and burnt through logs and pinecones was always aflame, but never so that it was too uncomfortable, even in the summer.

I picture my sisters and me, away from home during summer vacation, spending a week at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. Grandpa would play his guitar and sing songs and in his lyrics try to convince us that he was cooler than Grandma. Grandpa’s rickety white painter’s van would be loaded up with all of us kids strapped in, and we’d munch on his bulk-sized bag of baked pretzels as we drove into “The City” for the day. Grandpa’s sign business took us all through the Bay, becoming part of our lessons in growing up as our first semi-job, but we could still be kids and be distracted by the new wonder that was the Internet or rummage through our mom’s old clothes and toys. And their yard and the surrounding neighborhood was our playground. The muddy hill covered in green foliage was to be climbed and conquered. The fences and gates between neighbors were either tenuous or easily unlatched, and we would squeeze through or let ourselves in to another backyard to play and explore.

And right along one of the wire fences was a big bramble of blackberries; each summer they were plump and ripe, ready to be picked. Our hands would turn purple and our clothes would be stained as we grabbed the juiciest of the berries. They would be eaten fresh or baked into a pie by Grandma. That was always something to look forward to during our summer vacations at Grandma and Grandpa’s. And so recently, now legally no longer considered a child despite how I feel, I was visiting Grandma and Grandpa and wandering around the house when I came across the blackberry fence – except now there was a gaping hole where there was once juicy berries. Now, I could see through the wire fence into the neighbor’s yard. Now the once-opened gates that let us run through neighbor’s yards were replaced with tall fences with padlocks. Like a sour blackberry in the tiny fists of my younger self, I was just crushed – no more of that fresh, delicious fruit. Things felt different.

Earlier that day, my grandpa and I were chatting. He was doing most of the talking, as he usually does. In the past few months, he has rambled at length numerous times about a few specific topics. To me, these aren’t rational or coherent conversations. Sometimes he would ramble about religion. Sometimes he would try to explain how we all came from the same bloodline – black, white, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, up, down, left, right – we are all connected. And every time he explains this, he draws a circle and hammers each point with dots in the center. He talks about pharmaceuticals and explains how that is the industry that is ruining this nation. And his panacea, his solution to all ailments: honey and cinnamon, is one of his favorite topics. It has grown harder and harder to listen to.

I was having lunch there on one of those recent visits; Grandma made homemade chili and baked a loaf of sweet corn bread. Grandpa comes in, stands over me sitting at the dining room table, and starts explaining some of his health problems to me. He recently went to the doctor, he said, and while I have a spoonful of chili in my mouth, he pulls on his eyelid and rolls his eyes to the back of his head. His tear ducts were triggered and the saline liquid rolled out and pooled near the pink flesh that he was showing to me. It was not a very appetizing sight. But look closer, he told me, he had calcium deposits that he wanted me to see. He explained how his doctor didn’t remove all of them on his last visit. The entire situation made me uneasy.

I still hold onto the great memories though, which are now like movies; classic masterpieces on a cassette tape that you can barely make out over the static. But we watch our favorite movies over and over again even as they get fuzzier just as I still replay in my head my favorite memories over and over again even as they get more distant and warped. Summers in San Francisco at Grandma and Grandpa Hall’s house; rare but unforgettable visits to Grandma and Grandpa Ford’s giant home on the lake in Tega Cay; years of football and wrestling melded with summer camps away from home and gas station visits after practice so that we could stop in and get an ice cold sports drink; a family reunion in Ohio where the fireflies glowed and the snipe hunting was another failure; our homes in Modesto; treasures from these scenes pop-up sporadically, and I’m glad to have them still.

So when I was standing there by my grandparent’s blackberries, seeing for the first time how barren the fences that once supported the thickets of the fresh fruit are now, good memories and all of these conversations with my grandpa came together in a conflicting battle, and I had a moment of realization. I was growing up. Years are passing by, and those around me are getting older. And now, as I’m defined as an adult, I have to deal with whatever comes with that. But after reflecting on this further, noticing my peers in my own life, who are the same version of their child-selves but with more responsibilities and ambition, it’s become apparent that “adult” and “child” are just false dichotomies. We put on suits and ties, and with those vestments we also put on airs of confidence and authority. But we are still just overgrown children, trying to figure out the world. I can still hold on to and cherish what I have been fortunate enough to have experienced. I can still face the reality of getting older while at the same time looking forward to making more memories with the ones I love. Getting older isn’t all bad. Blackberry bushes are torn from their roots, but new sprouts elsewhere can grow into something wonderful.

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