Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Love Those Blackberries - Hate those Chiggers
My maternal grandmother, Hazel, was an imperious and somewhat intimidating old lady. When visiting her home one was always reminded that one did not run in the house, one did not shout, one did not bang the screen door, and one always minded one's manners. Just so.
She was a strict, fundamentalist, church-lady who always wore dark silk dresses to church with a hat and a little veil on the front of it. At least that is how I remember her. At home she wore sensible old brogans, with opaque stockings which, on particularly hot days, she sometimes rolled down below her knees, and held in place with those little rubber-band type garters of yesteryear.
The only toys she kept for the multitude of grandchildren (there were well over twenty five of us) who visited were "stored" on top of the refrigerator in an orange mesh bag with a draw string at the top. I think it probably was originally a bag of either potatoes or oranges. If you had known my grandmother, it would have made perfect sense to store the toys atop a tall appliance, as this was meant to assure that no one could play with them unless she first gave permission, and then she would personally reach up there and bring them down to child-level.
As a young child I was a bit afraid of her. You can see why.
However, my fondest memory of her was so completely different from any other that I still smile when I recall it. That hot summer morning, there was no silk dress, no hat, no church-lady demeanor. That day we had some fun.
Never before or after did I ever see my Grandma Hazel in a pair of well-worn men's denim coverall's and an old work shirt. A wide-brimmed, beat-up-looking, old felt hat was plopped over her hairdo. The stockings were gone, too, replaced by some big old white socks, with the legs of the coveralls tucked into them and topped off with actual rubber bands.
As my mother and my sister and I put on our own jeans and long-sleeved shirts, socks and tennis shoes, we were handed our own set of large rubber bands. My mom had picked enough blackberries (for that is what we were preparing to do) to know what this was all about. My sister was too little to ask or care; so I was the only one who asked Grandma Hazel "why" that day.
"Why are we tucking our legs into our socks and putting rubber bands around our ankles? It is going to be really hot today. Why are we wearing long-sleeved shirts?" That was me. Always, "why, why, why." Drove pretty much everybody nuts.
Grandma Hazel responded with just one word. "Chiggers" she said, as though that explained everything.
I was only a little girl and I had never been blackberry picking before. I didn't even know what a chigger was. Some other small fruit or something ? "Chiggers? I thought we were going after blackberries."
"Oh, we are going after blackberries. But the chiggers will be going after us!" She chuckled knowingly.
For those who have never lived in the Midwest and have never picked blackberries, chiggers are a tiny bug, so small they are hard to see with the naked eye, which bite anything that comes near. The bites itch like crazy and make you feel like your skin is going to crawl right off your body.
Of course, that morning I was blissfully unaware as we picked up our pails, got into the car and drove a couple of miles into the country where the berry bushes were loaded with ripe, luscious, blackberries.
We waded into the thickets and we picked. Boy, did we pick. Buckets and buckets full. Occasionally, but not often, I would feel a little prick near my foot. But I was having so much fun (you could eat as many as you wanted while you picked and they were sooooo sweet on the tongue) that I hardly noticed.
What I did notice, though, was the sound of the buzzing of bees and various insects lazily flying about the berry patch. Huge blue bottle flies caught the sun's rays as they flew past our heads. The sun was warm, and we were the only people in the patch, bending, plucking, plopping the berries into the pail. Bend, pluck, plop. There was a wonderful, purposeful, rhythm to our efforts.
The birds were out and singing away. Mom and her mother talked quietly about this and that and nothing in particular. Theirs was a strained relationship for the most part, but that day they seemed in real harmony. My little sister and I picked, ate, picked, ate. We squealed and ran around, playing as much as we picked.
By the time we loaded our haul into the trunk of the car and started home, though, I noticed something else. I was squirming and scratching my ankles raw. As soon as we got home, mom put my sister and me into the tub, scrubbed us and after our bath, she put calamine lotion on our bites. Fortunately there were not too many of them. # # # # #
Over the next few days, mom and Grandma Hazel canned what seemed like dozens of jars of blackberries, made blackberry cobbler, and baked blackberry pies. We were happily awash in blackberries. Our teeth were purple and our lips were too. We gave each other purple grins for days, my sister and I. No amount of tooth brushing quite erased all the evidence of our summer blackberry-fest.
Our chigger bites healed up. Our memories settled in. I decided chiggers were the frog-kissing equivalent to getting to kiss the prince. You have to wade through a lot of chiggers to get to the best berries. One of my earliest "life-lessons."
To this very day I love blackberries. And I still hate chiggers!
Hope your day is full of sunshine, good things, and nary a chigger in it. Until next time ... Marsha