The other day at breakfast I opened a container of fresh blueberries and, without thinking, said, “Oh, my, these are the size of grapes!”
I smiled thinking of the last time I heard those words. It was decades ago, and my grandmother spoke them. She was standing in front of a tall bush in the middle of her secret blueberry patch in an open section of scrub-pine woods on Nantucket. She had brought my cousins and me on a blueberry expedition, a summer ritual much loathed by us kids. She pointed us toward the low bush berries while she picked the high bushes, which were covered in bigger, plumper berries.
We were a whiny lot. We were too hot. We were tired. We were bored. Why couldn’t we go to the beach instead? She turned a deaf ear to our protests and busied herself with filling her empty cans. Eventually we started to pick. Just covering the bottoms of our cans seemed to take forever, but slowly the berries inched upward.
Often there were disastrous spills, or sudden squabbles broke out, or we ate more than we saved, or, usually, all of the above. Gram always came over and helped fill our cans with the berries she had picked. As the hours wore on, we tended to drowse in the hot, humid, pine-scented air, lulled by the sounds of scolding blue jays and alarmed chickadees, our mouths and hands sticky and stained purple with tart-sweet juice from the handfuls of berries we had consumed.
At last she would hurry us into the back seat of her green Chevy for the ride back to her house. We knew what was coming — blueberry pie for dessert, followed by days of muffins, cobblers, cakes, and pancakes. Pure heaven!
My grandparents raised my mother and uncle on an island hit hard by the Depression. They became geniuses of frugality. Gram used every bit of the bounty the island could produce and the family could gather. We picked blueberries, harvested wild grapes and beach plums for jelly, and turned cucumbers into the best bread-and-butter pickles in the world. We fished for scup and flounder, bass and blues, and spent hours coaxing blue crabs into our nets using smelly fish heads for bait. She used it all and wasted nothing.
I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandparents. My grandmother taught me the art of ironing sheets and curtains, cleaning and bed-making, knitting and sewing, cooking and gardening. In the evenings, she taught me cribbage, canasta, and thirty-one. She and I slept on the twin beds in her room, Grandpa having long been banished to his own room because of his loud snoring. On summer nights I fell asleep to the sounds of distant foghorns and, if the Red Sox were out on the West Coast, of the play-by-play coming from the radio next to her bed. She was an ardent lifelong fan.
During my troubled teenage years, when family life had become chaotic, my mom and stepdad sent me to boarding school in Maine. I felt abandoned and scared, but my grandmother corresponded faithfully. She wrote of ordinary day-to-day things in her neat, precise handwriting, reminding me of happier times. I devoured every word. Her letters were a lifeline.
After Gram passed away peacefully in her sleep at age 89, my mother inherited her book of handwritten recipes. When she died, it came to me. I still make Gram’s lemon meringue pie, coconut cookies, and Swedish meatballs, but the blueberry muffins, no matter how exactly I follow the recipe, do not measure up to hers.
I miss her to this day, but sometimes she is with me still, looking over my shoulder, contemplating a container of blueberries and saying, “Oh, my, these are the size of grapes!”