"But it was Little Bear's mother instead. She was tramping along, eating berries, and thinking about storing up food for the winter. Little Sal tramped right along behind."
--Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
I, too, have lost my child in bear country. Show me a mother who hasn't.
I, too, have felt fear grow legs, gallop through me, snap my sternum. Have run to any thicket that could hide a child and her empty pail. When you run, you could run faster. But you suspect your direction is wrong. And you sense she is beyond saving, anyway. In the clutch of some paw. Choking on berries. Tangled in briars, her overalls all over.
But then there she is in the clearance racks, the tunnel slide, the kitchen cupboard. She is no crow, no partridge. And it turns out you weren't running. It hadn't come to that. You just stopped your air to kill time. Made your feet fast but kept your bucket level. Running would have said, I picked this.
What's remarkable is the ease with which Little Bear took her place. You were certain it was Sal back there. The hint of warmth and movement at your back. Some breath. The way her weight on the ground seemed to crumble the trail underfoot. Under the dirt, lungs.
Or were you plotting new space between mother and daughter? Had you lengthened your stride, skipped the best berries just to ease up her gravity? Just to swing your bucket with abandon, a circle to yourself on Blueberry Hill? Before your arms were weary of pick, carry, keep, save? Before lose or raise? If so, a snapped twig in your wake would suffice. A rough breath would pass in and out unquestioned. You were thinking about canning, after all, if you were thinking.
The first time I picked blueberries I was three months a mother. My boy wouldn't start solids for three more. Solids? It seemed nothing would be solid again. I didn't even think to bring a container. I wasn't a container kind of person. The hill was flat. The sun was hot. The dirt was dust but the berries were ripe. They were good because they had to be good. To be blue was in their nature, too.
The berries were for me, as yours were for you. An elevation circled on a map. If I was holding fruit. If it was four o'clock. If I'd made a purchase. If I'd answered the phone. If we'd opened our windows. If our faces were soft. If winter was coming. Then. If. Then.
I have never said to my own mother, I wish you lost me in a wild place, but it is true. I imagined it often. The thrill, the danger, the way I'd indulge in the berries until it was time to ration them, build a fire, sew fallen leaves into blankets and dresses and baskets. But mostly I dreamed of reunion. Hollowed by my absence, she would, at the sight of me, fill to a new brim. She would keep a quiet wonder, like you. She wouldn't shout my name, too lucky she would feel, seeing me when I thought I was unseen. No worry would grow in me. But I would know to turn. She would look part bird and, with the pines far behind her, so small she could trample them, part bear.
My boys don’t know about the days I am early for pre-school pick-up, watching them on the playground, free of me. They don’t know that I linger outside their bedroom door to hear their chatter as they fall asleep. That I weep when they make it up another branch in our magnolia. Or when they meet you, and Sal, and love you like I do.
At my mother’s, the boys are joyful in the clutter, but the house can’t hold much more. The shades are drawn, old books and newspapers stacked high. I forget which story is mine when we are with her. When I try to contain their play, she clucks that boys will be boys. When I let their voices soar, she retreats to the kitchen. She prepares her first meal of the day, mid-afternoon. A bowl of Kellogg’s. At the counter, her back rounded from so much carrying, she counts the blueberries left in the pint. This is her rare indulgence, paying for fresh in winter. And she is choosy. She holds them in her hands like they are lucky coins, happy with their ripe weight. When she pinches them, they surrender just enough, just barely, no harm. She washes them well, lays them on paper towels, likes them damp, not dripping. Arranges them in such a way that the pouring of milk will not disturb a single one. My boys destroy her living room or play perfectly, eyes shining, dimples working, and she looks away, feeds herself without apology. I leave them to sit with her.
When you were out there, just you and Sal and the ragged fertile hill, you meant to pick more berries. What you managed in the end would never, it seemed, get you through the fallow months. One cold snap and they’d be used up. A couple of pies, maybe. One blueberry glaze on a roast. But still you carried the pails into the kitchen and began the work of putting up. Sal climbed a chair, to even your heights, to see the abundance. And, in the end, you filled every jar you had to fill. You filled every winter.
Marianne Jay Erhardt teaches writing at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her work appears in Oxford American, River Teeth, Michigan Quarterly Review, Conjunctions (Web), Phoebe, and Ninth Letter.
Cover Image: Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, 1948.
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