Is it their unique, sweet taste? Is it the familiar crunching of their seeds between your teeth? Is it the way their grid sections form together into a fascinating dome shape? Is it the hole inside of them that is just the right size for a toddler’s index finger to carry them from a bowl to their mouth?
It’s all that and more for this Wisconsin grown girl with childhood memories of them growing in a huge patch of bushes in our family’s backyard.
Every year when the calendar turns to July, I think back to my time spent in that patch of wilderness in the yard of my family’s home. It was the best use of space and time to let the bushes grow in one big clump. It wasn’t, however, the ideal way to pick the berries. Raspberry bushes are a great example of how nature protects itself. The thorns were a periodic reminder that the berries belonged to the plants and the plants didn’t give them up easily. Many of the berries were hidden under the leaves so it was a concentrated hunt to make the most of your time there. The bushes were a favored home for hearty Wisconsin mosquitos who loved the dense leafy bramble foliage, so time was devoted to futilely trying to fight them off with flailing arms. There were also birds and bugs of different shapes and colors who liked the raspberries as much as we did.
How the beautiful berries grow is a common but fascinating process. The plants are first adorned with small white flowers , then hard yellow nuggets replace them, soon turning pink and then bursting to vibrant red overnight.
In peak season, Mom used her biggest bowls and buckets to harvest the plump bright berries. Ice cream buckets, with their tall sides, were best to protect from possible spillage if swatting pesky mosquitos The bigger the berries you picked, the faster your bucket was filled, although many never made it to the bowl depending on how much of an appetite you started with, or worked up to while there.
Sometimes I was in the patch alone, sometimes I was joined by my sister, or my mom or dad. It was best to be there with my Dad as the mosquitos favored him.
Picking the delicate berries is tedious, and prices for them in stores reflect that. Not counting our time, or loss of blood donated to scratches from the bushes and to the mosquitos, the raspberries in our backyard were free. Although the season seemed short, it did last for up to a month; and the berries came in abundance while it lasted. The buckets and bowls went out empty and were returned brimming. I can still see the bowls of berries sitting and soaking in the sink until most of the bugs floated to the top where they could be skimmed off. The bugs that were unseen, one could reason, were protein thrown in. Those raspberries were an explosion of taste whether eaten alone one by one, on top of a fruit salad, or in jam, but nothing could top them mashed with a touch of sugar added to create the perfect topping for ice cream.
Our backyard forest of fruited foliage provided more berries than our family could eat. Mom shared with grateful neighbors, and steam wafted from the stove as raspberry preserves preserved that sweet raspberry taste for many months to come. My mouth still waters when I remember eating butter and Mom’s raspberry jam on Mom’s warm homemade bread.
The bushes were first shared by a friendly neighbor. Then, when our family moved, bushes were transplanted to the new yard where they multiplied and provided as much of a bounty as the patch they came from. And when Mom moved two more times, a sample of the beloved bushes followed and thrived; so that when I came to visit with my own family, my children learned the jeopardy and joy of harvesting, washing and eating the berries.
For many years, grocery shopping as an adult on a budget meant passing raspberries by at the store. But these days, they are a common item on our shopping list, a sweet treasure of taste that takes me down memory lane and right into my family’s backyard.
Some memories grow sweeter with time as they ripen with age. And as we watch our granddaughter put raspberries on her index finger and carry them into her mouth, I hope she and other descendants will care enough to one day read what it is about raspberries that stirs fond memories for this Wisconsin grown girl.