Cumberland Times-News

June 26, 2008

Berry-picking brings back many memories

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

Last week I went to Wiley Ford to pick strawberries. I came home with enough for several packets of frozen berries, for three jars of strawberry jam, generous spoonfuls of fruit on my breakfast cereal and shortcake with real whipped cream. Home-grown berries always taste better than those flown in from California and what I pick myself take on special flavor from the memories they evoke.

As I was growing up, my family spent vacation time on what had been my great-grandfather's farm in the Pocono area of Pennsylvania.

It has been allowed to deteriorate into a semi-wild, cool refuge from the heat of Philadelphia, where, every summer, a miscellaneous assortment of family and friends moved in and out of the several houses on the property.

There was no near-by commercial entertainment, so we walked in the woods, we played games, we got into long conversations and we went berry-picking.

All of the berries were wild. Strawberries were limited to the tiny, honey-sweet morsel that dotted a meadow behind our house. Red raspberries grew in several patches, though we children shunned the best of the thickets.

We had been picking there, years go, when one of our unmarried aunts suddenly shouted, "Railsnake! Run!!'' and we all rushed back to the safety of our country road.

I don't know whether Aunt Annie actually saw a rattler, coiled to strike, or had a glimpse of a suspiciously-patterned garter snake slithering out of her way. Perhaps she heard an exuberant cicada. We didn't stop to investigate. But we found excuses not to go back to the spot that we always identified as Rattlesnake Run.

Strawberries and raspberries had short seasons, but huckleberries of one kind or another were available all summer long. Nowadays they are sold as blueberries, in small containers at a high price, but for us they were available in endless quantity, free for the taking.

The earliest ones, pale powder blue, grew along the road and lined the paths through the woods. In my mind they are associated with my ancient Uncle Rawle (he must have been over 70!) who shuffled each morning from the farmhouse, cup in hand, to pick the berries for his cereal and Aunt Lydia's. He carefully counted the berries; explaining that it took 64 - or was it 78? - to flavor the breakfast food properly.

We never counted the berries; we picked them by the gallon. We filled our blickies (small pails that had once been cans for peaches or sliced pineapple) and emptied the contents into a bigger bucket so that we could fill them again - and again.

Before the low-blue season ended, the bush huckleberries had ripened on the steep hillside overlooking the abandoned railroad tracks.

Then, late in the summer, Daddy led us to The Little Round Swamp and other choice spots to which his grandfather had introduced him. The bushes grew eight feet high, and berries hung in clumps the size of a man's fist.

All summer long we had berries on our breakfast cereal. There were berry-studded pancakes and muffins for lunch, and we had huckleberry pies for dessert, with Mother's wonderful flaky crust and the rich berry filling that left us - temporarily! with purple-stained teeth and blue lips.

Kneeling on straw to pick strawberries from carefully planted and weeded and tended plants - and having to pay for the privilege of picking! - is not the same as scrambling for fruit on a gravelly hillside, or peaching across a swamp ditch for that biggest berry on the other side.

But the strawberries I picked were sweetened by the memories of other pickings - of the sun, and the sweet smells, the camaraderie, and the slips and spills and narrowly-diverted disasters of years ago. And, yes! - I'm looking forward to berry-picking again next year.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.