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Love, death and a blueberry patch

In Henniker, N. H. (population less than 5,000), you can’t order sushi, watch Toy Story 3 or buy gladiator sandals with platform heels. But this time of the year, if you know where to look, you can pick enough unsprayed, explosively flavourful blueberries to fill any number of pies, and you won’t pay a cent for the privilege. Whoever owns the berry patch can no longer be bothered to charge the pickers who tramp through a tangle of weeds to claim a share of the bounty.

My niece Audrey, who lives nearby, is a picker so keen, she drives around with her gear at the ready. When I visit she proposes berry picking with the same anticipation and pride that I’ve sensed in fashion-minded New Yorkers who’d hate to see me miss the sample sale around the corner.

One recent scorcher of a Friday afternoon, when sensible folk were lolling under their ceiling fans, we had the berry patch all to ourselves. At the side of the road Audrey got me togged out with a yogurt cup suspended from a belt and high rubber boots–white with black peace signs–to shield me from brambles. I’ve never been one to wear peace signs but I do respect rituals and picking seems to be ours.

Audrey seemed bemused that I wouldn’t leave my heavy leather purse in her car, which has no trunk. Where I live in downtown Toronto, a parked car with a purse on the seat might as well have a sign on the windshield urging, “Rob me!” In Henniker, so I’m told, the prudent course of action is to roll up the windows before locking. Audrey humoured me, though. She carried the purse herself. Why not? She’s 31; I’m 60 with a cranky shoulder.

It had been almost a year since we last visited the patch, talking as we combed the branches for clusters of plump berries in the perfect shade of sun-ripened blue. Half of what we picked, we must have eaten. I remember asking, with affectionate interest but not a flicker of anxiety, if she was seeing anyone special. She wasn’t.

Way back in another life, when I was pregnant with my only child, I thought I’d have this sort of conversation with my daughter. Like the best sort of female friend, this dream daughter would understand that there’s no subject more enthralling than the heart and its reverberations. Then my baby turned out to be a son—loving and loyal but a guy through and through. And I eventually realized that if I’d had a daughter, the exchanges I craved most would be the ones most freighted with maternal hope and fear. I’d scan my daughter’s face, her confidences, her whole life for clues to how I’d fared as the architect of her womanhood. Things are cleaner between mother and son. Or aunt and niece, for that matter.

Audrey and I don’t have many chances to talk. I follow her on Facebook, along with other far-flung nieces and nephews (in the photos she’s always smiling). Sometimes I drop her a note or set aside some whimsically timeless piece of clothing (velvet evening gloves, a beaded scarf) that I no longer wear and and know she’ll like. This year her news has been both wonderful and wrenchingly horrible. First she fell in love with a man she trusts. Then one of her long-time friends, a woman she has known since childhood, was fatally shot at home, not far from the blueberry patch. The whole town reeled.

I’ve had plenty of practice at mourning friends who died of cancer in midlife. I often think with a shiver of outrage about a former classmate, a girl I barely knew, who was murdered at age 14. I can’t begin to imagine how it feels to lose a cherished friend as my niece has just lost hers. When I heard the news, I wished there was something more consoling I could do than tell Audrey she was in my thoughts.

And then there we were, hands across a blueberry bush.

In a gesture of mourning, my niece had had her long braid chopped off. I didn’t question her willingness to endure a god-awful haircut in honour of her lost friend. Part of what’s so appalling about any death, let alone a violent one, is the way the wheels of your life roll on with their invisible cargo of anguish. In times long past, people wore their sorrow for the world to see (and themselves, every time they passed a mirror). They rent their garments or dressed in black from head to toe. They understood something most of us have forgotten. As it happened, Audrey’s hair looked lovely. I told her so. Then we talked, with new gravity and familiar lightness, of pretty much the same things we discussed last year while the sun beat down and the blueberries tasted of summer.

Three days later at my kitchen island, I sprinkled the last of the berries on my breakfast cereal. You wouldn’t have known they’d come all the way from Henniker, New Hampshire without a cooler. They’ve spoiled me for any other blueberries.

Click here to read one of my most popular magazine stories, “When my best friend died.” 




Posted by Rona

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