Berry Picking

Wild blueberry picking

“I used to do it all the time. I was young once upon a time too, you see.”

Looking at my 75 year old mother sitting across the kitchen table, I was trying to envision her as a young vibrant teenager. In a recently discovered 1950 class, captured her likeness as a six year old first grader standing beside her older sister Audrey, and I had seen photos from my parent wedding, but to visualize my mom as an active , rambunctious girl in her teen years was just escaping my imagination.

“My sisters….well… let me just say ….they did it more than me” She added with a mischievous smile.

I think she could tell by the look on my face that this was too much for me to process.

“Awww that summer I met your father….let me tell you a story.”

“Biscuits!!!” shouted both Donna and Sheila as their Aunt Cecilia opened the screen door and quickly moved out of the way of the onrushing girls.

“Beautiful day” quipped Rita with a newly found air of maturity as she stepped through the doorway to follow her younger sisters. “Might muggy though.”

“Tis indeed,” smiled Cecilia adoringly as her eyes tracked her young nieces rushing forth into the kitchen. “Tis indeed. Help yourselves. I put up a new batch this morning as Tom mentioned he saw you picking berries back on the dikes.”

Wild blueberry picking

Cecilia watched as biscuits, together with strawberry jam, honey and butter flew from the girls’ hands into their awaiting mouths, evidenced by sticky fingers and dribbling chins. “Where’s Frankie? Your brother never comes with you. Always just you girls. First your sisters Audrey, Mary and Pauline, then you three, but never Frankie.”

Sheila stopped chewing on her biscuit and blurted out, “Frankie says berry picking is for kids and g….”

“Perhaps Henry has chores for him? “ Tom quickly interjected as he entered the kitchen.“ Hello young ladies, what’s new from down your way? He added as his eyes took hold of the biscuit devastation in front of him.

Donna, with jam dripping from the corner of her mouth, was the first to pipe up, “Mary’s got a boyfriend!”

“And he’s from town!!!” Rita quickly added, as if in a race to spew forth these words before her sisters could.

“Hmmph, from town?” muttered Cecilia. “Well, no good will come of that. No good at all.”

The girls, as if on cue, all looked to Cecilia and nodded in unison

Tom silently chuckled at the ladies in front of him. Smiling he added, “You all will have boyfriends soon enough, but not today.” As he looked out the window to the darkening skies, Tom told them, “Today you mustn’t dally. It’s getting late, and I reckon Henry be wanting those berries for jam and his big pot back for boiled dinner.”

And with that, the visit was over. The trio of blueberry pickers, with bellies freshly filled with newly baked biscuits, made their way outside to pick up the day’s bounty. The large dinner pot swung between Sheila and Rita, with Donna’s burden being a much smaller pot.

“Bye Aunt Cecilia! Bye Uncle Tom!” the girls cried out as they began their journey down the laneway. “Thanks for the biscuits!”

Cecilia waved after her young nieces and yelled, “And no trading the blueberries at the store for treats! Jam needs to be put up for winter!” She turned and went through the screen door into the house.

And as sure as blue tongues tell no lies, her voice came booming back through the screen, so commanding that the little mesh fabric posed little defense. “And Donna, stop eating the berries!!”

Wild blueberry picking
Wild blueberry picking

This story speaks of the journeys taken by the Hughes sisters to pick berries on their relative’s farm in the 1950s and 60s. Audrey, Mary, Pauline, Rita, Sheila, and Donna made the long walk from their house in Fort Augustus to the bountiful blueberry-filled hedgerows of their Uncle Tom and Aunt Cecelia Dalton’s farm. Then the girls travelled the road back home again with dinner pots and buckets full of wild berries.

On a cold November afternoon following the first snow storm of the season, 75 year old Mary Bevan set off to retrace the journey she made with her sisters some 60 years previous. She began at her former house near where the school once stood, ventured down the road and past the store that’s no longer a store. Then she travelled further on past the house where Pete and Mar once lived, by a house long burnt down and finally to the spot where Tom and Cecilia’s farm once stood. Gone is the laneway, the house, and the barns and gone are the blueberry laden hedgerows. It has all gone the way of big agriculture, perhaps Big Potato. Some call it progress.

When Mary’s sister Donna was questioned about this progress, she summed it up in two short words.

“It sucks!!”

It does. A lot has changed. Wild blueberries have progressed from a family staple to family businesses, to even big business in some cases. Each summer Mary’s granddaughter Ella proudly carries the family “dinner pot” into the blueberry fields to harvest nature’s bounty.

Thank you Donna, Rita, Pauline and of course Mary, my mom, for your help with this story.