I just heard that my best friend- from growing up- mom died. I do not want to use real names (I didn't in the original story), as I don't have permission. I can say that it makes me so very sad. Her mom was a role model to me, in many ways, on how to be a stay at home mom. How kindness sometimes comes in the form of fresh baked cookies and the smell of sheets hung on outside to dry.
Years ago, I wrote this story. It's called "Blackberry Season." It really was a tribute to the mom that was kind, sweet and a constant presence in my youth. I thought I'd post it here today. I'm going to light a candle tonight... and maybe? Make some chocolate chip cookies for the kids.
Because, after all, it's not blackberry season.Blackberry Season
The window shade snapped up, the early morning sun poured into Maria's bedroom. "Good morning, girls," Mrs. Perkens said as she walked over and sent the next shade spinning, wrapping around itself. The two little girls, nestled in their own sleeping bags on the double bed, slowly started to open their eyes. Maria and Katie, both nine years old, loved playing their game 'whales tails' in the sleeping bags at night, make-believing they were the great beasts of the sea, frantically thrashing around, the long cylinder bag the tail. "Would you girls like some pancakes this morning?" Mrs. Perkens asked in her gentle, soft voice. Maria and Katie both opened their eyes widely, "With some blackberries on 'em?" Maria asked eagerly. "Sure," Mrs. Perkens teasingly shook the bottom of Katie's sleeping bag, "Sleepy head want some, too?" Katie smiled and nodded yes. She loved being at the Perkens house, where nights were quiet, mornings filled with hot breakfasts and Mrs. Perkens' smile.
Katie learned at the age of seven her mother was a "semi-alcoholic", a term she used when they were driving in the car once, her older sister in the front seat asking why she drank so much. Katie knew everything about it except the word itself, believing her mother's admission meant it was normal and okay to be that way, answering casually while explaining it to them. She also knew it was best to smile be a good girl, do whatever her mother asked her to do, so she could leave and go to the Perkens' house across the street. Her mother didn't like the Perkens, always saying they were "low class" people, snorting at the way they ate dinner at five-thirty and took Sunday drives, looking at houses they couldn't afford.
The two girls scrambled down the stairs, chasing each other playfully on their way to the kitchen. "Now, settle down you two," Mrs. Perkens said while stirring the bacon in one skillet, watching the pancakes in another. "We're going to pick a ton of berries today, Mom," Maria said, her blue eyes bright against her summer tan.
"Yup, we can go up behind the barn, there's some bushes there we didn't get yesterday," Katie said to Maria, her fair skin red from the week of blackberry picking. Mrs. Perkens placed filled plates down in front of them, "Here you go," spooning hot blackberries on each stack, then while holding the pan in one hand, she brushed Katie's brown hair out of her eyes, "And I'm putting some lotion on you today. You're getting real red." Katie looked up and smiled, then returned to her pancakes.
"Now you girls should be wearing shoes out in those bushes today. Don't want you comin' back all scratched," Mrs. Perkens called over her shoulder while at the sink doing dishes.
"Aw, Ma, we're not tender foots," Maria explained, both having spent the majority of the summer toughening the soles of their feet on the gravel driveway and other such volatile surfaces so shoes would not be a necessity during the hot months of July and August, not to mention the advantages playing 'Indians' with bare feet, being able to walk silently through the woods without the heavy, cumbersome addition of shoes.
Stepping outside, the sun was already blazing hot, warming the dry ground the girls walked barefoot on, each armed with a shiny, silver half-gallon bucket to fill with blackberries.
"Wanna play we're Indians gettin' berries for our clan?" Katie asked.
"Sure, but Indians wouldn't have metal buckets..."
"Well, we can be Indians after they met the white people, so we traded for 'em."
"That means our clan is really hungry and poor and we're starving," Maria pointed out accurately, as they always tried to played Indians close to the facts, pouring over books, trying to understand.
"O.K.," Katie said in seriousness, already getting into the role, imagining herself a young Seneca, hungry, desperate. When they arrived at the bushes behind the barn, they both were in their play roles, dashing over to the bushes, greedily filling their mouths with the berries.
"We must bring berries back, share them equally," Indian Maria said stoically.
"Yes, but we must also keep our bellies full enough to make long travel back," Indian Katie noted.
"Hmph," Indian Maria nodded sharply with a serious look as they continued filling their buckets and their mouths.
"Only thing white man good for is good carrying basket," Indian Katie noted, lifting the bucket, admiring it.
"Hmph, our baskets may lose berry through weaving, but it is nature's way. These," shaking her head, "are not nature's way," Indian Maria pointed out.
"Hmph," Indian Katie replied.
They played their game for hours, picking the bushes clean, contentedly discussing the woes of the white man's invasion of their land in broken sentences, the way they thought real Indians would talk, with no wasted words. When the buckets reached the brim, they headed back to the kitchen where Mrs. Perkens worked.
Mrs. Perkens looked up from the boiling pot on the stove where she was preparing the blackberries to become winter’s jam, seeing the two little girls with solemn faces. "Well, what can I do for you ladies?"
"We've come to trade our berries," Indian Maria spoke.
"Oh," Mrs. Perkens smiled, knowing the many games the two played, one being the Indian game, and she played along, "Well, let me check the goods," she eyed over the two buckets, "I can give you a meal for that. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches and a glass of milk."
The girls eyes widened, a favorite lunch. "Milk is so rare for us, we should build our strength with it," Indian Katie noted eagerly.
"Hmph. These good berries. Some cookies too?" Indian Maria, the tough bargainer asked. Mrs. Perkens broke out in a warm laugh, "Sure, some cookies, too. Why don't you Indians go sit down and I'll get the fixens so you can make your own. After lunch, Katie, you need to go home- your mom called and wants to see you."
Checking diligently both ways for cars, even though the old country road was hardly ever traveled, Katie carefully crossed, making her way home to her modern A-frame style house, much different from the Perkens' old farmhouse. Getting closer, she retreated farther inside herself, preparing for whatever mood her mother may be in. It was a hot summer day, and Katie figured her mom would be drinking something clear with a slice of lime in it.
Her mother was sitting on the back porch, cocktail in hand, just as Katie imagined. "Sweetheart, how are you?" her mother said to her.
"Fine," Katie grinned from ear to ear, hoping to please.
"Look at you, you're all sunburned. You shouldn't be out in the sun all day with your fair skin."
"I'm okay. Mrs. Perkens put some lotion on me this morning."
"Oh. Maybe it’s time for you to play on your own for a while,” her mother smiled a forced smile.
"We're picking berries, Ma. Mrs. Perkens is making jam and she needs us to pick berries."
"You can pick berries another day."
"No, Ma, it's the peak time right now. "
"You've been over there the last three days. It’s important to be able to play by yourself, too. You won’t always have a playmate, you know," her mother said, voice strained, looking annoyed. Katie figured they could pick berries in her woods and please her mother. Sometimes it was only a matter of what side of the street they played on, they could be acres deep in the woods but her mother would be happy with them on 'her' side of the road. She smiled brightly, "We'll pick berries over here, okay?" Her mother's face dropped, and sighing heavily she said, "Do whatever you want," and returned to the book she was reading. Katie's heart dropped into her stomach. She wanted to play with Maria, pick berries and make her mother happy, but her suggestion didn't work and she was left struggling to find an answer. "I'll go get Maria," she chirped cheerfully, fighting the tears rising inside.
Katie approached Maria sitting on the porch outside the kitchen, nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie. "Wanna go to my house and play?" she asked hopefully.
"I don't wanna play inside. Besides, I've gotta pick berries for Mom," Maria said.
"We can pick berries in my back yard."
"But there's only a couple bushes."
"Please," Katie begged.
Mrs. Perkens opened the screen door to the porch, the shiny buckets in hand, "Now, com' on Maria, you go on over to Katie's and pick berries," she said gently, firmly. "Okay," Maria conceded, taking the buckets.
On the way over to Katie's, Maria turned to her and said, "Your mom again?"
"Yeah. She wanted me home this afternoon and if I didn't then there's no way I could stay over tonight."
"Think she'll let you?"
Maria nodded, between them there was a silent understanding far beyond their years. She looked over at Katie, "Still wanna play Indians?"
Katie's eyes lightened, the child returned, "Yeah, except now it's been days since we've seen our clan..."
"Many moons," Indian Maria corrected.
"Yes, many moons," Indian Katie stoically replied.