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Volume 39 Issue 13 • July 30-Aug 5, 2009
now in our 39th season

Blackberries

by Robert P. Barsanti

The blackberries in the backyard have grown small, dry, and pitiful.   In the gray murk of June and July, the sun never quite spent enough time drawing up the water and to make them sweet and juicy.  Instead, they look post-apocalyptic.  The blueberries in our special, hidden hedge are as juicy as ball bearings.  I spent a full two hours poking through those bushes in order to find enough to make one dessert.   Time was, not all that long ago, that we would be eating blackberries and blueberries for weeks.  I would make muffins, pies, pancakes, and anything else that would use up all of the free food in the backyard.

All of Nantucket produce may suffer the same fate this summer.  Both the tomatoes and the corn will come late this year, the zucchini and squash are more fit for pixies than people and the strawberry harvest was a rumor.  August may still be August, but the sweet buttery corn may ripen by the due date for summer reading assignments.   At a time when money for muffins and ice cream is tight, it bites harder to lose the free dinners and desserts from the backyard.

Today, with my rattling harvest, I made a buckle.  Or it might have been a crumble or even a betty; I get them confused.  Mix some sugar, some flour, some cheap butter and toss it in the oven.  Later, drop vanilla ice cream on top of warm berries then God will be in his heaven and everything right with the world.

Crumbles, buckles, bread puddings, zucchini bread, pumpkin cake, and the occasional batch of blond brownies were the province of my grandparents, the O’Rourkes.  They fought through a Depression and survived a World War with iron habits and reused cardboard.  Their refrigerator had seen government cheese and parish milk.  They lived in the same house that their children were born to and fed their grandchildren at the same table that serviced their kids.  A network of relatives, co-workers, and Knights of Columbus looked out and spied on each other through those decades.  One fella did car repair while another fixed screens and somehow my grandparent’s house never got a water meter installed.  Debts and credits were measured in guilt and righteousness.

Food from the pantry was traded over visits.  They would come over for Strawberry Shortcake in early July, we would visit them for blueberry crumble in August.  At the end of every visit, Poppy would hand us a fist-sized tomato.  My grandfather’s tomatoes developed larger and juicier than either the ones of his neighbors or of my parents.  All summer, he would pick them a week before ripeness, then line them up on his windowsills.  He doled them out to use like quarters. His victory garden and its tomatoes lasted into the Clinton administration, and some of the green tomato relish may live still in  my Aunt’s cupboard.

They saw the next depression and the next aluminum drive around every  corner of the calendar.  A decade worth of twist-ties were stored in labeled Tupperware.  Plastic bags were re-used until torn or transparent.  Clothes rested in storage bins until someone else needed them.  When I came back from college and took a job painting houses, my grandfather proudly gave me two sets of twenty-year-old overalls for work.  He collected the local paper, The Wakefield Daily Item, and burned it in his hot water heater, fire code be damned.

And he collected spare change.  Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, and old silver dollars were jammed into coffee cans and stacked in the basement.  He kept them behind the cans of nails, the jars of bolts, and the drawers of rusted miscellany.  This, he would say, is for “the times.”  If I pressed him, he would say that the cans are for ”Poppy O’Rourke five years from now.”

Times changed, of course.  We went to college and then to careers with ties, health insurance, and no union meetings.  The careers took us away from the web of lace curtained windows and evenings on the front porch and into video-conferencing and Facebook.  We saw a good time coming when we drove Japanese cars, hired specialists for the lawn and the children, and bought tomatoes.  Our Christmas bonus checks would triple the coin collection in the basement.  We put the treasures of their lives in the back closet with the twist ties and the oil lamps.  

In that golden time, we bring the relics out for our friends framed with an easy smile: “My Grandfather, can you believe it, saved paperclips and rubber bands.”

But another time came, this time, and we need his dread, makeshift example.  The island stares into another bruised and silent January, its days measured in ignored calls from Debt Solutions and Bank of America. Were he on island with us, he would fish the ponds for perch and trade with the squidders on the town dock.  He would visit the “Take it or Leave It” and “The Thrift Shop” twice a week, have a freezer full of scallops, and sit on the front porch with the Sox game going in one ear and an eye on the evening.

He would still have those coins.  The “Poppy O’Rourke, five years from now” turned out to be his great grandchildren.  I no longer have the Maxwell House cans, but still have his words.  I hold it up against the allurements of Lego PowerMiners and plastic Killer Whales.  Toys are fine, I say to them, but you need to save for the thirteen-year-old or for the eighteen-year-old.  They may want a surfboard, or a motorcycle.  Or, in the bruise colored evening, something far more significant and necessary than that.

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