Midsummer blows her hot and humid breath across our hills, although nighttime brings blessed relief from the heat. Gardens thrive in this weather, with tender yellow squash, crisp half-runner green beans and crunchy cucumbers gracing the country table.
Sweet, juicy blackberries are ripening fast in the fields and along country roads, just waiting for eager hands to pick and carry home fruit for cobblers, jams and jellies, and the surplus frozen for winter.
The first blackberries of the season were a source of excitement when we were kids, for picking and selling them was about our only source of spending money. After we picked all that Mom wanted, we were allowed to pick and sell the rest. We had plenty of customers (mostly from Charleston) who would pay the stupendous amount of fifty cents a gallon for our hard labor.
Early in the morning, we would put on long-sleeved shirts, pants, and boots—there was always the danger of a snake. Carrying our berry buckets in each hand, we set off in high spirits. Across the creek, up the path through the woods, we climbed to the cow pasture which was also our berry field.
Dew would be heavy on the grass and bushes, and we were wet to our knees before we started. It was cool and pleasant in the early morning, meadow grass studded with the bright pink flower that we called “St. Anthony’s Cross.” It always bloomed at berry-picking time, and even today the perfume of that flower brings back memories of the berry field.
It smelled like nutmeg, and I found out in later years that it is a type of “pink” or dianthus. Along with our berries, we always brought home a bouquet of this flower for Mom. I reckon we were taking time to smell the “roses” along the way.
At first, it was great fun. The first one to spy ripe blackberries got “berry luck” as the fruit rattled in the bottom of the empty bucket. The morning would still be cool and refreshing, and the only danger we had was stepping into a fresh, soft cow pile that always seemed to be located under the best berry bush.
We would pick steadily for awhile, then the sun would grow hotter and sweat would start trickling down our necks. This in turn invited the sweat bees, those pesky little insects that stung with a stab of fire. Generally, they didn’t sting unless they were mashed, but it was almost impossible to bend an elbow without crushing one. This seemed to invite more.
With berry buckets half full, it was time for one of the kids (usually Ronnie) to spill his morning’s work. He would try to scrape them up, along with leaves, dirt, and twigs mixed in abundantly. Mom could always tell who spilled their berries.
It was hard to keep from eating the really ripe ones, and invariably we got one that had been visited by a stinkbug. That is an unforgettable taste, and most country boys and girls have experienced this.
The hot sun beat down upon our heads, sweat bees abounded, and what had begun as an exciting excursion was now drudgery of the worst kind. Arms would be scratched and bleeding from the berry briers, and one vicious limb would always reach down and stab you in the head. We were supposed to fill our buckets to the top before we came home, and that last hour was sheer torture.
At last we made our way back down the hill, dragging our berries (and our tails) behind us. Of course we never considered the task that Mom had before her, cleaning, washing and preparing the fruit for winter. She canned half gallons of blackberries, made countless jars of jams and jellies, and still had time to make a sweet, juicy cobbler which we ate with thick cow cream.
Our blackberry patch disappeared many years ago, the path is barely discernable through the woods, and the pasture field is now wood land. No cows in the pasture to keep the brush down, and no blackberry vines. Tall trees cover the entire mountain side, and no pink flowers perfume the air. My grandchildren will never know the joys of berry picking.
We are still receiving examples of mountain dialect, which I love. Mr. Glenn Spencer (who is going on 90 years of age) sent some old sayings his father used. He writes, “Sometimes when Dad would come into the house, Mother would ask him what he had been doing. He would answer, ‘Oh, nuthin’ much, just brigglin’ around!'” (That’s one I’ve never heard.)
His grandfather had a saying when he sowed turnip seed—he was the best turnip raiser in the whole community. He would raise them and hole them up in the ground like potatoes. Then he would cut them up and feed his milk cows in the winter.
When gathering a thumb and finger full of seed to sow, he would repeat this saying every time, “Two for you, one for I, three for the devil, and four for the fly.”
Mr. Spencer adds, “One of my brothers copied Granddad in this and he was also a good turnip raiser.” I think Criss needs to learn this—he is a pitiful turnip raiser.
Mr. William Taylor of Dunbar (an 88 year old senior citizen) asks if we remember taking a side of salted bacon, cut it in slices, dip in beaten egg, then roll it in flour and meal mixed, and fry until brown and crisp. Indeed I do remember. It was very good. Maybe not for cholesterol, but still good.
He also sent a recipe for vinegar pie that I plan to include later. We really appreciate the faithful readers who take the time to respond to numerous requests. A special “thank you” goes out to John and Patty Graham of Millersburg, Ohio, for the song lyrics.
May the Lord bless all of you abundantly.