I remember the first time I ran across mulberries in Illinois. It was at North Central College, so it must have been the summer I stayed in the dorms or something — I remember being shocked that they existed outside of Wisconsin. I remember being so shocked that they existed outside of my childhood. I ate some, to the bemusement of my friends, who were properly following the “don’t eat strange berries that are randomly growing outside on stuff” adage. But I, who was normally so cautious about these sorts of matters, was absolutely positive that these, were in fact, mulberries. I couldn’t mistake them. Tentatively tasting one, I was instantly rewarded with the recognition of decades past, confirming my mulberry musings.
But the details of those days in Naperville were quickly forgotten, for many reasons, and the memories of mulberries went with them. I don’t remember exactly when or where, but there came the day when I found a bounty of mulberry trees in the city and was overcome with wonder. Any sort of shock that was present years before in the suburbs was long forgotten, and I was struck with fresh excitement and enthusiasm. Not only was I presented with the opportunity to be transported back to childhood again, but here, in the city?
Much like the first time, my friends were confused by my sudden burst of energy and giddy joy as I ran up to this unassuming tree and started picking berries from it and throwing them down my gullet as fast as I could. “Mulberries,” I exclaimed, “try them!” And ever after, as summer started to gain ground and reach its peak, I started to notice them here and there around the city — often by the stained pavement underneath and around the trees. It was a tell-tale sign of bounties of ripe berries, fallen to the ground, run over by cars and stepped on by unsuspecting pedestrians who didn’t realize the delicious secrets hanging right above them.
Some of the worst moments were coming up on a mulberry tree, only to find that its branches were just out of my reach and I couldn’t get access to the mulberries; jumping to help my case, only to knock the few berries that were in reach to the ground. Or finding that the birds had already had their fill and eaten all the ripe berries, leaving only the inedible, immature berries left. I am more than willing to eat a berry that hasn’t reached its full, rich, blue-black ripeness; the sweet-tart of the magenta berry is just as wonderful as the entirely ripened, juicy sweetness of a fully ripened mulberry. But a green or white berry just hasn’t had its day yet.
I bring all of this up, because I’ve seen the mulberry trees at Bryn Mawr in Bowmanville several times over the years, and always promised myself I’d pull the car over sometime and just eat. The branches and trees are low hanging — you can just walk right up and stand and have your pick — or at least, it looked that way. I finally had my chance last Thursday. I rode my bike over to Lincoln Square; I was picking up some antibiotics for Flan and some various and sundry cat related items from Ruff Haus. I was making my way back to Edgewater via Damen/Bryn Mawr when I saw my chance. I needed to get to work, but I had some time to pause on this summer day and take a little trip down sensory memory lane. I pulled over my bike, let down the kickstand and started in. Standing under the mulberry trees, picking ripe berries as fast as I could get them into my mouth, and wincing every time a ‘good’ berry fell to the ground.
As I stood there, feasting on berries, I was feasting on the memory of standing under my great-grandmother’s tree, eating mulberries with gleeful abandon. My sister was never as interested as I was, but I’m sure she was standing there with me, as we would stay with my grandmother, whose house was across the way two empty lots from my great-grandmother’s house. Sometimes, I would bring a small container to bring mulberries back with me, but they never seemed to make it the walk back across the field to grandma’s house. I would stand under the tree, picking as many of the berries as I could reach, eating until I got slightly sick to my stomach or got too hot or my sister got too bored or some other confluence of circumstances (my grandma’s voice) called us home.
The mulberry tree was directly across from an green apple tree that sat on the edge of the property line; the apples were tart when at their biggest, but much like the example my father gave me year after year, I could hardly wait for a fully-grown apple, and would eat them as soon as they even moderately resembled something that seemed edible. Usually, I took my father’s lead; sometimes I guessed correctly, and sometimes I was sorely disappointed. . I think I was minorly fascinated by the fact there was something on my family’s land that was producing fruit. Real food that we could just pick off a tree and eat for free. Back on my grandma’s land, there were two pear trees down at the end of *her* yard. Procedurally, the pear game was about the same as the apple game — try to wait until they were big enough to not be as hard as rocks, but watch as my father ate them too early anyway and follow his lead.
In the present, standing under the tree on Bryn Mawr, I was struck by how incredibly lucky I was, growing up. To have a living great-grandmother for well into my young adulthood, and a grandma into my adulthood. To grow up with this sort of magical set-up of old-world great-grandma; ever gardening and mobile well into her late 70s living just across the empty field from my grandma, who taught us all about spiritual open-mindedness and financial frugality. And the chance to have not one, but three trees, bearing fruit for our enjoyment throughout the lazy summer months, as we were being minded by grandma when … I don’t really exactly remember. My parents were either both at work or my dad was sick and my mom was at work. Either way, it was the years right before we were old enough to stay home by ourselves. I’m not sure … I must have been 9, 10, 11 or something. Jenny must have been 8, 9, 10. I’m not exactly sure the exact year that we were left to our own devices, but there were summers where we spent the majority of our days with grandma and great-grandma and great aunt Emily and Carmen, both of whom died in the last year or two.
I don’t know. I guess I’m straying from the mulberry joy. Not meaning to get somber. I recently came across a word I had never encountered before, and I was floored by the fact it hasn’t been part of my vocabulary for the last 30 some years, given the fact that I have lived in and used the words “melancholy” and “nostalgia” more than someone who was 18 and 21 and 25 and 30 ever should have. It’s saudade. And it pretty much describes a state of being that can enter my consciousness at the drop of a hat, it seems. It doesn’t have to be as sad as all that, exactly — bittersweet is also a word I’m quite familiar with, actually. Standing under those mulberry trees the other day, eating as many of them as I would dare, I was just overcome with a sense of gratitude and longing and wonder for times past and times never to be again.
The pear trees … I don’t know if they’re even there anymore, and if they are, I don’t think they’re bearing fruit anymore. My great-grandma and grandma are both dead, and the lots in between their respective houses were actually deeded to other relatives, and they were sold off years ago — a house was built on one while my grandma was still alive, actually. She got a neighbor out of the deal, but a part of my childhood was taken away. Gone was the huge expanse of empty field that stretched between the two matriarchs of my family — a house now impinged upon the view, upon the egress of grandchildren who might have wanted to still take a walk and see if there were still mulberries on that tree.
Sometimes, I feel like the “rebel” (or please let me be the “cool”) aunt, knowing about pop culture and pop music and not being afraid to swear with my niece and nephew. But there are times when I feel like the middle-aged woman I am, wanting to tell them about things like the mulberry tree and things I did with their mother, who I’m left to wonder if she has any mother-like distance from her children, being she had them so young. I want to be the one to tell them to go over and visit with their grandma and grandpa and ask them questions about what it was like when they were young before it’s too late. And to let them know if they ever see a mulberry tree, to go and eat with reckless abandon. To swim in lakes and participate in bonfires and eagerly hold open doors and call people “ma’am and sir.”
I start to think those things and wonder when I got so old, so old-fashioned. I look around my small hometown sometimes, and I wonder how it’s managed to change so much in the last 30 years, and how this must be how it always goes. I just wish that my niece and nephew had the opportunity to have their own time with a mulberry tree. And if not, that they have a memory like that they can call their own. Maybe it could be time under the willow tree in my parents’ backyard — the willow tree I always thought of as my own. Unfortunately, that tree is no longer there anymore, either. I guess it’s all destined to come and go and change and fade away. But really, if you get a chance to eat a wild mulberry — do it. You won’t regret it for a second. I promise.