Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Add two cups sugar to two cups fresh blackberries. Stir over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool.

So I did. I stood at the stove, stirring and stirring and stirring, watching the bumpy black berries soften and burst, coloring the sugar the shade of a deep bruise. As the juice ran and turned the sugar into syrup the stirring got smoother and a little monotonous.

It is highly likely that I could have left the jam for a moment or two – to answer the phone or move wet clothes from the washer to the dryer or check the score of the Braves game – without making any difference in the finished product, but there was something about the directness and simplicity of the instructions that called me to diligence. I would, as directed, stir for 15 to 20 minutes.

The rhythm of the stirring and the observation of the near-alchemy that was taking place before my eyes coaxed me into thinking about a lot of things. I thought about how much easier it would have been to simply buy blackberry jam (a thought I quickly dismissed by remembering the difference between Mama's creamed corn and that produced by the Green Giant).

I thought about the array of scratches all over my arms and legs resulting from my blackberry foraging. I thought about how accomplished I would feel once the jam had been spooned into the tiny Ball jars with the fruit-embellished lids. And I thought about the friends and family with whom I would share.

I watched my wrist rotate with the turn of the spatula, watched the tornado-like swirling in the bottom of the pot, watched the liquid slosh up in broad waves like purple ric-rac. And, staring into the soon-to-be jam, the thoughts turned to images.

I saw Mama standing at the counter slicing up cucumbers that would become pickles. I heard the whistle and jingle of the pressure cooker and the rip of corn shucks being stripped from their ears. I smelled the greenness of beans just snapped. I felt under my thumbnails the tenderness of an afternoon's pea-shelling.

And there I was, 10 years old and not-so-quietly stewing over what I saw as an imposition on my summer. Sitting under a tree in a folding aluminum lawn chair, balancing in my lap a blue plastic hospital pan, running my fingers through shell after shell of peas and listening to Mama and Grannie and an assemblage of aunts and cousins talk about people whose names I did not recognize, but who, I was assured, were kin to me.

I wanted to be inside, stretched out on my bed with the window fan blowing straight into my face, a Nancy Drew book in my hands. It was in that world, the world of daring adventures and unsolved mysteries, that I belonged. Not in the one where ordinary people did ordinary things. Shelling peas and picking off peanuts would not get me closer to the exotic life that I was certain was meant to be mine.

The timer on the stove went off and ended my reverie. The 15 minutes was up. I turned off the stove and moved the pot to another burner for the last step of the process: Cool.

Remembering the frustration of those sweltering summer days, it occurred to me that making my self has been a little like making blackberry jam. At ten, I was a combination of wildness and sweetness and life would have to do quite a bit of heating and stirring before the two things melded into something that was worth sharing, something that would keep.

So, I think I've come to turns with the idea that I'm never going to catch a nefarious criminal on a dude ranch or discover a hidden staircase, receive a mysterious letter or find a message in a hollow oak. That's just as well. I don't think Nancy Drew ever had time to make blackberry jam.

Copyright 2008

Monday, May 12, 2008

Knowing Enough

Collin is 6 years old. He has eyes like malted milk balls – round and chocolate brown. He picked up a book from the library table and, following the instructions of the librarian to "Go over there and let that lady read you your book," walked the few steps to where I was sitting and sat down beside me.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Collin," he answered. "She wrote it right here in the front of my book." He pointed to the perfectly printed name his teacher had written under the RIF stamp on the inside front cover of "The Dinosaur Who Lived In My Backyard."

He then volunteered his last name and when I, thinking I might know his parents, asked their names, he squinted those luminous eyes, stared off into the distance for a moment and said, "My dad's name is Daddy. And my mom's name is Mama."

Well, of course.

Collin told me he was in kindergarten. I had to smile. Is there anything more winsome than a kindergartener? Anything more gripping than the openness of that face, the generosity of that smile?

The day of Adam's kindergarten orientation, he and I left his mom in the classroom talking to the teacher. We had taken only a few steps down the hall when he stopped, still holding my hand, and said, "Kap, I don't think I know enough to go to kindergarten."

My heart clutched. I want to grab him up and run all the way back to the farm, to secret him away from all the hard and unexplainable things that I knew he would have to endure once he embarked on this existence outside the security of his family's arms.

I've always thought it most noble and courageous and, well, mature of me that I didn't. Instead, I told him, "Oh, I think you do. All you need to know to go to kindergarten is your name and your teacher's name and how to get to your classroom."

The blue eyes, fixated on my face, were tentative, unsure.

"So," I offered, "what is your name?"

"Adam Bradley."

"And what is your teacher's name?"

"Miss Akins."

"Good. Now let's go out to the front where I'll drop you off in the morning and you can show me how to get back to your room."

We started at the sidewalk where the carpool lines formed, walked down the long breezeway to the kindergarten wing, took a left and followed the circular hallway to the room where the door was decorated with a cartoon alligator.
He pointed.

"Yes!" I practically screamed. "You did it! See? I knew that you knew enough to go to kindergarten."

Relief showed itself in the slightest upward curve of the corners of his mouth, what – for the usually taciturn Adam – amounted to a smile.

It is not an easy thing to be an adult who loves, who adores a child. It is not easy to watch while he marches off to a place you've never been or to listen while she talks about people you've never met. It is not easy to acknowledge, even in the smallest way, the separateness of this being whose breath seems to be your own.

Collin, if he's anything like my Adam, will probably have little to say about his field trip when he is asked about his day by parents who soak up each word like intravenous nourishment. Two weeks from now he will not remember the name of his book or that a lady read it to him. But I will remember enough for both of us.

As the teacher called the children to line up to leave, I stood and patted Collin on the shoulder. "It was nice to meet you," I told him.

He smiled. And then, tossing the words over his shoulder as though they were birdseed, not gold doubloons, he said, "Maybe I will see you again."

I hope so, Collin. I hope so.

Copyright 2008.