Creative Nonfiction by Karen Luke Jackson
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue
Seamus Heaney, “Blackberry-Picking”
The summer my mother was five, she and her older brother Buck went blackberry picking. Working along a fence row, they filled a pail and a cup to the brim with the dark purple fruit prized in summer cobblers. Heading home, he had her carry the cup. Furious she couldn’t present a bucket full of berries to her parents, Mama dashed her small stash to the ground.
“I wasn’t aiming at Buck,” she insisted each time she told the story. “I was just hoppin’ mad, but it broke in front of him and he stepped on the glass.”
A deep gash in the bottom of her brother’s foot spouted blood. Panicked, Mama ran to the house for help. Their father carried him home and packed the wound with spider webs.
“I fanned Buck the whole afternoon hoping he wouldn’t tell on me.”
Growing up in South Georgia, summer work was never finished until Mama’s pantry overflowed with preserves and jellies: pear, fig, quince, and her all-time favorite, blackberry.
A ninety-year-old woman on Daddy’s mail route was our primary source for the wild fruit. She’d fill pails and leave them beside her mailbox for Daddy to sell. What our family didn’t buy, he carried to Wilma’s Beauty Salon, where patrons purchased a gallon for five dollars. Daddy often exchanged wrinkled currency for newly minted bills so that when she opened the envelope he left on top of her mail, crisp George Washingtons and Abe Lincolns greeted her.
Daddy could’ve lost his job if the federal government had found out what he was doing. But she lived off a small social security check. He said it was worth the risk of getting caught to help her earn some extra spending money.
In the kitchen, I watched Mama heat the berries then use a battered wooden spoon to smash them through a sieve. Tiny seeds, the kind that stick between your teeth, and fragile skins separated from the juices. To rid the pulp, she strained the mixture through cheesecloth. Then she added sugar to the liquid in equal parts and simmered the syrup until it thickened.
Mama knew by how the bubbles roiled when to pull the pot off the eye and pour the gelling juice into Mason jars. For the next few hours, we’d hear lids pop as the jelly cooled, a signal that the batch was sealed for winter safekeeping. When Mama held up a jar to admire her handiwork, light bounced off the jelly’s blackness.
When Uncle Buck was dying, both legs amputated to slow the cancer ravaging his body, Mama visited often. One day she found him lying in soiled linens and cleaned him up, a considerable undertaking since Mama couldn’t change a baby’s diapers without throwing up. A weak stomach was a family trait, one her brother shared.
“Wank,” he whispered, invoking the childhood nickname he’d given her, “do you remember when I almost bled to death?”
“I’ll never forget that day,” she said. “I was afraid Papa would blame me if you died.”
“When I’m gone, I want you to remember. No matter how mad I got with you after that, I never tattled.”
Blackberry bushes ramble along a path where I now hike in North Carolina, the fruit ripe, entangled in thorns. I risk being scratched, reach for the nearest cluster, one that doesn’t require me to step into tall weeds where a rattlesnake may be coiled. My teeth sink into a purple globe the size of a thimble. Like a popped water balloon, the berry bursts on my tongue. A shimmer of sweetness follows, sweetness so tart my skin tingles.
27 responses to “Sweet Fruit”
This is a beautiful memory to cherish. I really don’t ever remember your mom getting that upset. She was a lovely lady!
Thank you for sharing!
Thanks so much, Ann!
What a sweet story. Thanks for sending it! It makes me want to go blackberry picking.
Thanks, Teri! Hope to see you this spring.
Karen shared a heart-warming family story and carried me back to a simpler time when hard-working folks used what they had. Her story was full of loving gestures. The next time I enjoy blackberries, Karen’s story will come to mind.
An absolutely fun read. Could feel Uncle Bucks cut on my foot. Could feel the tiny seeds between my teeth. Could see my grandmother’s Mason jars handiwork in the pantry in the old country home kitchen nestled in the woods on the Linwood NC farm.
Thanks, Dave! I got so many stories from other folks, we could have published an anthology!
Beautiful narrative, Karen. I was transported and also felt like I got to know your mother a bit. Your writing made me think of the time my then boyfriend (now husband) and I picked blackberries on our hikes in the mountains.
Sweet, Megan. Thanks for your comments and for sharing your own memory of a sweet time of blackberry picking.
A beautiful memory! I felt as if I were there and could taste the blackberries! Blackberry jam is my all time favorite. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Doro! Glad you enjoyed the memories.
Thank you for sharing!
Sweet Fruit reads like a Flannery O’Connor story – especially when Daddy risks his job to sell berries for the old woman on his mail route. Southern Gothic meets Mother Teresa. Love it, love it, love it.
Now that’s a first — Southern Gothic meets Flannery O’Connor! Thanks, Mary Alice
Karen, I enjoyed this beautiful story…reminded me of my childhood when my sister, Janice, and I would go down by the Creek bed, with my Granny leading the way to pick blackberries. Granny would put socks on our hands. The toe area would be cut out for our fingers to be free for the picking. Oh yes, Granny had a big stick that she would beat at the bottom of bushes to scare the snakes away.
Then we would go home prepare the blackberries for Granny’s Pie…She would make dumplings…I called them Blue dumplings..Great memories.
Oh, Dianne. What an incredible memory of socks on your hands with the toes cut out and “Blue dumplings.” People have shared so many stories of blackberry picking, we could published an anthology!
What a beautiful and moving piece. Deep and bittersweet, it goes straight to the heart.
Being a south Georgia girl myself, I was transported back to my childhood. My sister and I picked the berries and I was terrified that a snake would be in the bushes. My mother made blackberry jelly and made delicious blackberry pie which was really cobbler. Karen does an excellent job of writing creative nonfiction and I am happy she sent me the link so I could read it.
Thanks, Glenda. You have some wonderful stories to share too!
I first heard Karen read this at the Henderson County Library. It was such a treat–the taste of blackberries on my tongue, the fruit at all stages of becoming jelly, and yes, family–always family! Growing up a little sister, wanting so badly to be the one with the most berries, and a brother who kept her secret is a story that rings as true for me as the summer’s wild sweet harvest.
Your story about your Daddy risking his job to help someone in need feels like an invitation to me… What am I willing to risk to help people in my community/country? I wish I could remember and tell family stories as you do Karen. Maybe if I go through the tubs of my parents’ pictures in my attic the stories would float out along with the dust ! Thank you for sharing such evocative stories.
Oh, Marta. I’m sure those photos would stir more than dust and what a treasure when your story triggers another person’s story!
This is an awesome story about the South. I related to it and loved it, Karen.
Thanks so much Brenda Kay! I love reading your work, too.