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The Blackberry Do Over--Remembrances of Peru

The Blackberry Do Over

Sixta the gardener came today. She is Quechua but doesn’t wear the native clothing that many still do here in the Sacred Valley. The Quechua are descendants of the Incas. The older generation, the parents and grandparents of adult children, often speak only Quechua. Sixta is first the generation that learned Spanish in order to better integrate into the rapidly approaching Western world. Her children are now learning English and the Quechua language and culture are being slowly forgotten. These people are small but sturdy, like muscle-bound Staffordshire Terriers. Sixta and her husband Pepe work for about fourteen dollars a day. Hard manual labor. I pay more because I respect their time beyond industry standards. They both look like plump, little, ripe blackberries. Hair so black it looks blue; round cheeks burnt brown from the sun. Stubby hands and fingers stained from pulling grass and digging rocks out of the yard. I almost never understand Pepe because he speaks with a Quechua accent but Sixta translates his Spanish into her Spanish and then I understand.

I believe the Quechua and other native cultures are the true tesoro (treasury) of Peru. Alongside the mineral resources and the Amazon rainforest that are being ravaged as we speak. Protection for these people is rare and they are largely marginalized. However, with a surge in the viewership of the programs Ancient Aliens and Lost Civilizations, plus the upsurge of shamanistic journeys in the Amazon with the foul-tasting mix that is known as ayahuasca, Peru has become a focus for archeological and spiritual travel which is energizing the native cultures and shedding light on their intrinsic value.

Sixta and I are going to harvest black berries today. The living wall bordering one side of the yard is partly a massive blackberry bush. It is about eight feet high and 20 feet wide. Gratefully many of these berries are in plain sight, politely hanging over the fence so we can pick them without going in to battle dress uniform. Sixta must have the skin of a rhino. Nothing seems to penetrate her epidermis. I am “Oooo-ing and Ouch-ing” the whole time. My mind is filled with bowls and bowls of fresh, organic, berries topped with crèma de leche,cinnamon and powdered sugar. Visions of my mother’s blackberry pie come to mind. And her blackberry jam…memories of picking blackberries as a child on the farm flash in my mind’s eye.

My family had a farm in Western Pennsylvania. We had cows, pigs, chickens, horses, a cherry orchard, two peach trees and one over-achieving pear tree. The woods grew wild blackberries, which we, as unpaid child labor, were forced to pick wearing long-sleeves in the dead of summer. Because we were semi-poor we didn’t buy long-sleeved summer shirts, we wore flannel shirts from the winter collection.

Along with the suffocating flannel, there were the cat’s claw-like brambles which bypassed the flannel to rudely grab raw skin. Needless to say, picking blackberries was not my happy place as a kid. In addition, the uncontrollable urge to eat them before they hit the basket largely sabotaged my success. Nonetheless, with five kids picking we would amass enough for my mom to make several pies and dozens of jars of jam. My mom was a Martha Stewart type. Any food she touched turned into delicious scrumptiousness. I have never, ever made a pie or even attempted to because I knew it would not pay homage to my sweet mother.

Despite the pain and suffering I went through to harvest the raw ingredients, I enjoyed the tasty homemade treats. But when it came to giving gifts at Christmas, store-bought was the only safe way to go—in my eight-year-old mind.

But lo and behold my mother insisted I give the school bus driver a jar of homemade black berry jam several years running. The day she would give me the darling jar decorated with a pert, hand-sewn bow, tied perfectly around the metal ring of the canning jar, my stomach would churn and my cheeks would start to burn. Why was it me that had to do it? Probably because I was the youngest and everyone else had graduated from mortification school.

As the school bus neared, my capillary system flushed into my face. The hair on my arms stood up and goose pimples formed, not from the cold but from the rude assault I was about to make on the unassuming bus driver. Poor guy.

I shuffled up the steps. As I passed, I stuck my arm out with the jam mumbling, “ThisisfrommymommerryChristmas.” The bus driver, Mr. Thomas, an African American middle-aged man, smiled brightly with his perfect white teeth, “Why thank you! That is so nice. Thank your mother for me, will you?”

I knew he was feigning enthusiasm. He would probably forget about it as soon as he got home. Why couldn’t we have bought some tube socks from K-Mart, or a Steeler’s skull cap to keep his fuzzy, balding head nice and toasty?

With my mother now passed and my entire family dead except for one estranged sister I would give an arm and a leg to have those moments back. No better blackberry jam has ever passed the mouth of human beings. It tasted like a dark purple, explosion of love.

I am guessing the bus driver scraped every morsel out of the bottom of the jar and probably even stuck his finger in to swipe the extra bits hiding under the lip. Proclaiming, “Mmm, mmm, Miss Natalie sure can make blackberry jam.”

If I could do it over I would spring up the bus steps holding the lovely jar with both hands. I would offer up the blessed and sacred elixir and say, “Mr. Thomas, my amazing mother is bestowing this priceless jar of homemade blackberry jam to you as a symbol of our deep appreciation and gratitude for driving us safely to school every day.”

I would sit down on the green plastic seat with a smile of smug satisfaction for having been part of a team that produced the most excellent of products. My capillary system would behave, pumping blood to my heart for the gratitude I was feeling. Goose pimples would be inert and unseen, ready and waiting for some other situation where they would be appropriate.

How many times have I wished for do-overs? What if I could live in the present moment, appreciating all that I have now? Would that eradicate the pain of loss and sadness of nostalgia? The pain of guilt or longing for “the good times”. What if right now is the good time? I ask myself that question often. My mother’s passing drove home this point in a painful way. Each moment I have is precious. Is there time that is wastable so that I can fight and argue, blame and judge another? The wise saying that often crosses my mind is, “Live each day as if it were your last.” I’ve begun to be more present, noticing when my mind is chattering away about some problem I’ll have in the future. I stop, take three deep breaths and look at the detail that surrounds me. A stone wall with mustard-colored lichen, tomatoes growing in a red tub, pink geraniums in the border garden, Henrí’s alert, shiny brown eyes, Sixta and her blue bucket. This practice brings me into the present moment. All past and all future can only take place right now. As I move on in my life without my precious mother, I hope to evolve so that wanting “do-overs” becomes less a part of my thoughts and I become more fluid with Life itself. But right now, I have blackberries to pick with my Quechua friend Sixta with five dogs crowding underfoot all wanting to be petted. The sun is shining and I can hear the river gurgling outside the adobe wall.

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