The extreme heat of this July has resurrected memories of blackberry picking of my childhood. Long before I ever picked my first berry my mother had spent many a summer in the county of her birth picking the deep purple, luscious fruit with her mother and siblings. Most likely out of need, the Schwegler family would travel to Maries County, Missouri where they would visit with family. In July, when the fruit ripened, they would don their “picking” outfits and go to their favorite thicket of bushes and spend several hours filling their buckets to the brim. Long-sleeved shirts and pants were called for or long, angry scratches were the result of reaching into the brambles for those plum morsels of blackberry goodness. After the trek, hours were spent in the kitchen brewing jars of blackberry jams and jellies that would last into the next year.
My family spent many summer weekends traveling to Osage County where my grandfather, Wright Schwegler, had a clubhouse on the Gasconade River. My mother continued the tradition of picking blackberries. And oh how I hated that tradition. I can’t think of anything worse than putting on long sleeves and pants and hiking in the heat of July. Our picking crew consisted of my mom, my brother Bill, and me. My dad would drive us to the same location every year since my mom didn’t drive. We would hike up a long hill to a massive thicket of Blackberry brambles hiding their jewels among their thorns. By the time we would get there, I would be soaked in sweat; not a comfortable feeling for a city-bred, teen-aged girl. No matter how hard I tried I still wound up with long slivers of red scratches on my arms, despite the long-sleeves, and my hands were covered with wounds from the long thorns of the bushes. I don’t ever recall my mother making jams or jellies so we must have eaten the fruit over the course of the next few days.
Some of my best memories of those days at the clubhouse include warm salads made with fresh greens and tomatoes picked from my grandfather’s garden smothered in Viva Italian dressing. A short walk up the road would result in fresh ears of corn to be boiled and slathered with butter. And best of all, catfish tails from the fish caught on the trotlines from the night before were covered in corn-meal and deep-fried to golden perfection. My brother and I weren’t allowed to eat the other meat of the fish; it had to be the tails since my mother was afraid we would choke on the bones from the other parts of the fish. There were many things we weren’t able to do, which is a testament to my mother’s will to see us safely through our childhood.
Unfortunately, the tradition of blackberry picking wasn’t passed on to my sons. Today, if one wants, you can have blackberries on the menu most days as they are grown all over the world and shipped to the United States for consumption. I’m not sure the blackberries we get today are as good as those picked straight from the source, but they sure are easier to come by. And despite being uncomfortable, I still have fond memories of those days so many years ago spent with my family in pursuit of blackberries ripened in July.