By Ellie Levin, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
Most of my memories of picking blueberries are benign. The sky is always blue, and the tall bushes just the right shade of green to match the value of the blue. I am with my family and sometimes others. Before us, when Bradford owned the property in the foothills of the Catskills, the nuns from the neighboring convent had permission to pick all they could use to feed their school and camp for children. In black and white habits with wimples, they walked along the road from the convent to our best high-bush blueberries with baskets hanging from unseen arms. My family inherited Mr. Branford’s caretaker, Floyd, and through his auspices, the nuns continued to pick each summer. My mother, who was less insular than most of my father’s family, talked to the nuns and enjoyed seeing them among the blueberries bushes; she grew up in St Paul, Minnesota, in a mixed neighborhood of stately houses. Her next-door neighbors and her friends were women of several different faiths. With them and their families, she frolicked at White Bear Lake and picked Minnesota blueberries, less than an hour’s drive from the city.
My father and his siblings lived on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan among other Jewish immigrant families. They were City people. They considered blueberry picking a strange interest and dangerous. You could fall, you could get lost, there were wild animals and reptiles that might attack, and the berries were so small that they were hardly worth the trouble. Besides, if you picked the wrong ones, they could be poisonous. They stayed in their houses, newly built, California style. They went to Monticello in chauffeur driven cars several times a week to buy kosher chickens, fruit, vegetables, and household necessities. They ventured out occasionally in the evening to nearby Jewish resorts that served kosher food. The shows there were usually nightclub comedians from the City.
Many years later, after Saint Joseph Convent was sold and was converted to a hotel, my children grown, and my mother no longer able to go blueberry picking, I stayed with her for part of the summer. I think it was my mother’s suggestion after lunch one day that I might want to pick some blueberries. She said she would be fine alone for an hour or so. I got a basket and started out intending to pick along the road just outside the main gate. The bushes were healthy, but there were no berries on them. Perhaps other people had picked along the road or the berries had dried from the sun and fallen. Without noticing, I went further and further into the woods where I found ripe, blue, lush and plump berries on bushes so high and dense that I could hardly see the sky. When my basket was nearly full, I looked up at the tiny patch of sky above the six-or-more feet tall bush that I had just picked. I realized with a shiver of fear that I didn’t know from which direction I had come. I tried to find where I had trampled the underbrush, but that did not lead me out to the road.
Most likely while picking, I had not gone in any one direction. I sat down for a while and tried to think what to do. I decided to walk toward the strongest ray of the sun as it hit the leaves around me. Having a plan to carry out kept me from total panic. I walked and walked becoming scratched by low branches, over-heated, and fatigued. I was afraid now of the coming night. I wondered if my mother would decide that I was missing, telephone the county rangers, and ask them to go looking for me. Then I saw light through the bottom of the bushes. My heart beat furiously from hope that it was a road. I knew that it could be just a clearing left by timber company years ago, or a swamp where the deer came to drink. As I went toward the light, I thought that it would be nice to have some deer as company. I was now aware of being lonely as well as frightened and lost.
I was in luck; it was a man-made macadamized road. I saw no cars. I picked what I thought was the right direction and began to walk. I had to come to something that I would recognize eventually. Soon I passed a house that I knew, but it was on the wrong side of the road. I was walking away from my mother’s house. I turned around, confident now. I was elated as I headed back along the section of the road I had just traveled.
My mother was less worried than I thought she should be. I had been gone four hours. It was almost six o’clock in the evening. I told my story. We laughed together when I said that I thought only City people got lost in the woods and that was why they did not go blueberry picking. It never occurred to my mother and me that I could get lost less than a mile from home.
I still love to pick blueberries, but it becomes more difficult each year to find enough along the road or just off the path in a clearing to fill a basket. The fields where we used to meet the nuns no longer have bushes that bear fruit. Should I go deep into the woods, would the bushes be loaded with blueberries, as they were that day when I was so fixed on finding them?
Elinor Levin is a retired teacher and mother of two sons. These days she enjoys swimming, walking, yoga, and Writing from Life Experience.