Every summer, when the warm air of spring gives way to the heat of July, my mother gathers a horde of people and hustles us into conversion vans. We transform into a troupe of clown cars all headed to the same “x” location, so to speak, for a single, devoted purpose. My family is afflicted by a strange infatuation. We love berries, and everything that goes along with them. Jelly, jam, tarts, preserves, and pies — we’re obsessed with them all. We’re not too picky about the specifics, either: Strawberries? Great! Blueberries? Divine. I’d always known that my family adored the little, round, multicolored fruits, but even I, who secretly harbored a certain ambivalence toward berries, did not quite understand the depths to which they would dive for the fruit.
It started off innocently enough. My mother has always been a rather “wholesome” person; organic foods, homemade breads — she’s even a beekeeper and harvests her own honey. But a few years ago when she stumbled across a mulberry tree on our property, the jam revolution ignited. Soon, we were in a jam frenzy, canning the concoction almost every day. But then came the outing that escalated our obsession even further.
The church my family attends is in the middle of the woods and actually borders the now-shuttered Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. One day, we were walking back to our car after mass when we spotted them: a couple of berry bushes bordering the parking lot. A quick investigation soon confirmed our suspicions and every berry enthusiast in my family — all five of us — said a special Hail Mary. Because these tiny, crimson fruits were what we consider the king of the vast berry empire, the ultimate treasure: raspberries. We needed them. So, with the goodwill of our priest (my mother briefly huddled with him), we all returned later that afternoon in hiking boots, armed with bug repellent, ready to gather these tasty little treats.
An armful of scratches and several pricked fingers later, we realized that our crop would simply not yield a sufficient amount of jelly. We needed more — lots more. Both of my parents were looking glum, and, feeling defeated, we sat and watched the sun set over the old psych center. It created a perfect black silhouette and the somewhat eerie sight sparked an idea in all of us.
Before I knew what was happening, we began to traipse over the abandoned settlement. For anyone who has never seen the site, it gives off a horror-movie vibe. Tall brick buildings shrouded in graffiti, creating a certain feeling of doom, cast shadows on the overgrown roads. Broken pieces of glass glinted with the last rays of sunshine. What looked like dental chairs were flipped and trashed, their foam guts spilling from tears in the canvas. The presence of several old greenhouses, as well as an abandoned golf course, gave the site a derelict elegance. With sweaty faces and pink-stained fingers, we located a cluster of tangled raspberry bushes. We got to work harvesting from plants that were clearly designed to ward off ravenous, berry-thirsty beasts like ourselves. Our baskets were on the brink of bursting when a security car patrolling for trespassers drove around the corner. My mother, my kind, law-abiding mother, shoved us into the thorny, raspberry-dotted clutches of the underbrush. The prickers dug into my skin, and my breath mingled with the sickly sweet scent of the fruit. We all hid there for a time, frozen, as if a single movement would make our presence known and ruin our beloved escapade. We waited until the car had finished its rounds. We were silent on the ride home, in awe of the booty we had collected, our very own forbidden fruit.
The next day, my mother separated the berries, creating two distinct batches of jam. The first, which consisted of berries picked on church grounds, had the title “Blessed Berries” scrawled on the jar labels. The second, containing the “slightly illegal“ berries, had been tattooed with the words “Psycho Sauce.” Not very sensitive or politically correct, you might be thinking, especially for such a wholesome mom. But the “psycho” moniker had little to do with where we found the berries; it was much more about the nature of our adventure.
This fall Devon Close will be a junior at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie. She can’t wait for next spring’s berry-picking bonanza.