Thursday, August 19, 2010

blackberry summer.

Listening To: Roses and Cigarettes by Ray LaMontange
Line love: "Della Lee laughed. She actually sat there and laughted at Josey. Her front teeth were a little crooked, but it looked good on her, offbeat and sassy. She was the kind of woman who could get away with anything because she had no boundaries." - from The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

"Don't your soul get lonely. Child, it's only time ... it will go by." - Ray LaMontagne

Tonight, I'm thinking about blackberries.

Specifically, I'm remembering the wild blackberries that bloomed through the twisty briers in the yard of the house where I grew up. Because I've have always lacked the ability to pull my head out of the clouds long enough to function well in the real world, I thought the blackberry bush was a fairy-tale waiting to happen. I would stand beside the bushes waiting, waiting, waiting, until I finally felt brave enough to snatch a berry and toss it in my mouth. I was always afraid of having a Rapunzel moment ... like a witch might reach her bony hand through the briers, and grab my wrist, and demand I go buy her a pack of Lucky Strikes because I stole her berries. (My granny liked to put more, er, modern twists on old fairy-tales.)

I still believe there is something wholly satisfying about eating a blackberry: that little pop-pop-pop as I bite down, that glorious mix of tart and sweet that bursts against my taste buds, the purple stain leftover on my finger tips. Blackberries are a messy kind of wonderful.

The wild blackberries didn't grow en masse, so my mom and my granny always bought blackberries from a lady who picked them by the bucket-full. I don't remember what the Blackberry Lady's face looked like. But I remember thinking she was beautiful. She had dark hair that fell to her waist and thin, freckled arms. She looked gorgeous in an earthy way. I thought the Blackberry Lady looked like a fairy. And maybe she was; maybe she was a beautiful mountain fairy who kept her wings bound under a linen dress long enough to sell people blackberries. She always brought the berries in big white buckets and set them on the porch and then drove away in an old truck. I bet the truck disappeared in a glittery puff at the end of the driveway.

Once the Blackberry Lady had departed, the house became liken to Strawberry Shortcake's Laboratory. My mom and granny made countless jars of blackberry preserves (a process that still delights me to no end because it involves Mason Jars and boiling water and steam and tongs!). They made cobblers and pies and sometimes Gran would just toss the berries in a bowl and dust them with sugar. We would sit on the couch and watch soap operas that I wasn't technically allowed to watch and eat blackberries. We had inky hands and happy hearts.

I'm thinking about blackberries today and I'm thinking about how summer was so easy-breezy back then. My summers, as a kid, were full of stories and movies and time with my bffMelanie. I read Roald Dahl books to my brother under a Chestnut Tree in the back yard. I wrote goofy poems about boys I had a crush on. I swam for hours and did flips in the water just to the point of nearly throwing up. I prayed under the Willow Tree. I caught butterflies in Mason Jars. (Before you think me inhumane, know that 1.) I always poked holes in the top and 2.) I always let them go. I just wanted to see their wings up close for a minute or two).

Summer food was amazing too: fresh corn that made a pretty ripping sound when you pulled down the husk, strawberries sweet as candy, yellow apples that weighted down the tree limbs in the orchard, sun-warmed cherry tomatoes that I used to eat straight off the vine (fertilizer - bah), twisty-gnarly veggies and blackberries. Always blackberries.

I've moved away from that town now but, thankfully, I live in a city that loves and embraces local farmers like nobody's beezwax. A few days ago, at a roadside stand, Mom and I found quarts of blackberries - big, ripe, inky blackberries - for cheap. We bought them (they come in little green baskets these days, not white buckets) and started debating about what we could do with them. I'd bookmarked a recipe in Eat Well that I wanted to try - cornmeal-coated chicken nuggets with blackberry mustard sauce. Doesn't that sound weirdly delicious? I decided I wasn't quite up for something that adventurous, so I turned to my imaginary bffIna Garten and found a recipe for Peach & Blackberry Crumble. (Actually ... her recipe calls for peaches and blueberries but I figure it's okay to mix and match the berry part. Also, her recipe calls for cinnamon which I didn't use.) Mom and I found some pretty yellow (cheap!) ramekins at TJ Maxx. And then I got to work while Mom punctuated our conversation with frequent reminders about where the fire extinguisher was located.

Last night, I listened to The Judds (I happen to believe "Mama He's Crazy" is one of the sweetest country songs ever written) while I peeled peaches, rinsed blackberries, and mixed a buttery-flour mixture until it was "just the size of peas." And the result? Oh.


The Peach & Blackberry Crumbles were a hit. They were easy; a perfect little blend of elegant and earthy. When I pulled them from the oven, I did jumpy claps. And then I busted a few dorky dance moves across the floor out of sheer delight before grabbing my camera:

Do you see that gooey delicious blackberry ooze running over the sides of the ramekins? There are no words to describe how delightful that tasted. My dad doesn't usually do fruit (unless when you say "fruit", you really mean "apple pie" ... or "steak") but even he scraped the ramekin clean. The Rogue Accountant consumed his Peach & Blackberry Crumble in minutes. Seriously, this picture doesn't do the final product justice. You can't even see the giant scoop of vanilla ice cream I settled on each one ... or the way the ice cream melted into a perfectly hot, crumbly, purple pool of yum.

Eager to celebrate my culinary prowess, I called my sister. This is a snippet from that conversation:

Me: You would be so proud of me! I made Barefoot Contessa Peach & Blackberry Crumbles and they were delightful. The only --

Sister who is Ridiculously Gorgeous and Savvy [interrupts]: I am proud of you but I am not surprised! I have always said you would enjoy cooking once you learned to have fun with it. I think the reason you say you're bad at it is because you tried a few times, and it didn't work, and so you quit.

Me: I was about to say that the only oops moment was that I didn't get all the paper off the butter. So butter-paper sort of baked into one of the crumbles. I played it off like, woo! You win if you get butter-paper in your crumble!

Gorgeous Sister: Eh. Paper is fiber. It's good for you.

Tonight I was uploading my pics onto the computer, and I got weirdly emotional about the whole thing, not because I cooked and didn't start a kitchen fire (though I am thankful for that!). But because blackberries make me think of my granny. I think she would be proud of me, too.

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss my grandparents, but sometimes the missing part feels bigger, like I've pulled a scab off my heart without realizing it. I think it has to do with the season. Granny was a summer girl; it's like the sunlight made her sit up straighter and smile bigger. She always slipped into a heavy kind of sadness in winter; but when the trees bloomed again, so did she. Blooming roses and blackberry stands have me thinking about her so much lately. I see something on TV and start thinking about how much she would like it (she would have adored The Food Network). Or I'll read something: an article in a magazine, a line in a poem, or a lyric in a song, and I wish I could tell her about it. I think about how Oprah is no fun now that we can't watch it together and I smile when I wake up early enough to catch Today because I remember her saying Al Roker was such a handsome man. Most of the time now, those memories don't hurt. But every now and then a teary one comes along.

I've been thinking about this Bible verse in Luke, the one where Jesus talks about all the saints in Heaven rejoicing together when good things happen on earth. And I keep thinking about when he taught the disciples to pray, and he said, "on earth as it is in heaven ..." I'm not trying to infer something that isn't there (ie: this is a pencil statement, not a permanent purple Sharpie statement!), but I think people we love, those who've gone on ahead, are thinking about us, celebrating over us, praying for us. I wonder if they get to catch glimpses of what we're into down here. Sometimes I like to picture Granny whooping it up somewhere on a back-porch in Glory, clapping for me and shouting, "That's my girl!" I think she cheered for me when I decided I was going to pursue what I love, fly or fail. And when I made a decision earlier this year that has rocked my world in ways I never ever thought possible. And when I stopped being religious and started trying to live like Jesus said to live, and love like Jesus said to love. I think she's proud of me when I stand up for myself. When I fall in love. When I try and fail. When I try and fly. When I try to cook even though the process usually involves a little exercise I affectionately call, "Stop, Drop and Roll."

I think my granny would be proud of me because life tastes like blackberries again. She would be proud of me for wanting to write beautiful words and live out some beautiful moments. If she were here, she would tell me to kiss more guys and write more goofy poems about it. She would tell me that insecurity is a stupid excuse not to write more books. She would tell me that I should wear red more often, and that I shouldn't feel silly when I dance around in the living room to Avett Brothers songs, and that it's okay if I read the same books over and over. She would tell me not to let old regrets drag me down. She would tell me grace is enough. And maybe she is saying those things; she's not saying them to me, but maybe she's praying those words over me. Grace is enough. Rest for a spell. Dance through this day with confidence.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Tonight, I'm thinking about blackberry summers when I sat on the carport steps with my granny, and she lifted her hands up to make shadow-birds against the sunset. I made a bird with my hands too; a little one, that flew behind hers, that flew just like she did.

She always believed I could fly.


  1. It always makes my day when I see a new blog post from you! You are such a talented writer, and your beauty shines through in the words and stories you share. This was such a touching post--thanks for sharing such sweet memories.

    And your culinary success makes me want to be daring too...but the kitchen and I, we have an understanding: avoid whenever possible. If my kitchen had legs, I'm sure it would run whenever it saw me coming. ;)

  2. so beautiful. that peach and blackberry crumble looks amazing. i'm hungry now. and i am pleased to say that i finally found and bought paperdoll, haven't finished it yet, but it's great, Natalie, just like i knew it would be.

  3. You are SUCH a good writer, Natalie. And that crumble looks amazingly delicious! Happy summer memories to you, my friend...

  4. WOO HOO!!! LOL Im hungry now! LOL! You're an amazing writer, Natalie =]

  5. Natalie, your post was just enchanting! I loved each and every moment that you were able to capture and describe to us. Your granny sounds like a beautiful spirit..I wish I could have met her. Congratulations on the cooking :) It is truly such fun to be in the kitchen (even more fun when what you're making turns out to be fabulous!)! Keep up the lovely posts..j'adore your writing!

  6. I think, out of all the blog posts you have written, this is my favorite. Your summer memories are sort of magical. When I lived in South Carolina (I was a wee little thing ;) we ate blackberries like no one's business.We would walk a ways down from my grandma's house and pick them from the bushes. There were millions. :) I remember my mom telling my sister and I that if we cleaned our room we would get blackberry surprise as a reward. At that, we would race to our rooms, stash toys wherever possible and beeline to the kitchen. The blackberry surprise, (which was just cream cheese, sugar, and crust) was delicious and sweet and we devoured every bite. Blackberries are still my favorite fruit and I love getting them from farmer's markets here. It's funny how simple memories like that can awake you to the moments in life that you learned something. I am thankful for my memories as a kid, even if my childhood wasn't perfect. Thanks for this post :)

  7. I loved the part about the Blackberry Lady (who was probably secretly a fairy). Because of the lovely way you write, I could just picture it in my head. :)

    And while I'm not really big on blackberries (I've never really had them much), I loved reading the memories about your grandma. :) It seems that I've been missing my Granny a lot lately, too, because of certain things going on in my life. Sometimes I struggle with the concept that things can never truly be the way that they used to be. Not on this earth, anyway.


  8. reading this brought a smile to my face! i could feel exactly what you were trying to described and it felt wonderful. reading about your descriptions of summer made me kinda sad that summer is almost over. i also loved reading about your granny, she sounds like such a fun, sweet lady! :)

  9. Beautiful and true. Granny would have been so proud of you and all of us. I believe as long as we were happy, she would be happy, too. Love you tons! (And just in case I haven't told you lately, you are such an incredible writer!!!)

  10. What a wonderful tribute to your granny! Griefbursts can be unsettling at times but I always feel like it's our subconscious reminding us to remember. And not just to remember our loved one, but to keenly feel their absence. My grandma died 3 years ago and I too imagine what she might say to me and how she would react to some of what I've done. I think our grandmothers would have been friends:)

    Also, not to make you jealous, but I'm going to see Ray LaMontaigne and David Gray on Sunday!

  11. *teary-eyed*

    You are delightful, Natalie. That is all.

  12. This makes me want to giggle and cry and dream and really, really live. I hope the rest of your summer is absolutely magical...thank you for all the ways you inspire me!

  13. You all love each other so well. It brings tears to my eyes!

  14. Thanks for the uber sweet & encouraging comment on my blog about high school. That blackberry desert looked AMAZING.:)

  15. This is a wonderful post. I love blackberries! :) WE just heading into Spring. Im uber excited tehe :) Slightly over winter.
    Hannah :)

  16. I loved this. You should be a writer...; )

  17. Awwww :) I loved reading about your grandparents. My dad's dad died a few years ago. We all knew that it was coming but it was still so hard when it happened.

    Sometimes when I'm visiting their house I smell something that reminds me of him and all of a sudden I can picture him sitting on his cushion of the little old love seat on one side of their living room. When I was little, I would come in from playing on the tire swing or swimming in the pond. I'd run into the living room and climb onto his lap. He'd hold me tight, even if my swimsuit was still damp from the water. He always smelled like chai tea and cashews and outside.