By the Handful

A handful of blueberries, nestled in my open palm, small nuggets of sweetness washed and ready to sprinkle on a bowl of vanilla yogurt.  They were on sale today, and so I indulged in this rare treat, usually a dearer price than I care to pay. 

As I shook them from their plastic container into my hand, I recalled another time when I held a palm full of blueberries.  These had been freshly picked, though, and I had eaten half again as many as I collected, unable to resist the allure of plucking them straight from the bush and popping them into my mouth.  It was 15 years ago this summer, I realized, shocked once again by the swift passage of time.  And I was with my mother in law at her home on the lake.

It was our first trip to the lake after my father in law’s death.  His illness had prevented any of us from traveling north that summer, or from properly opening the house.  Imagine our distress when we opened the front door and saw the roof over the family room had leaked, stagnant smelly water had soaked the carpet and furniture.  My mother in law burst into tears, unable to withstand this latest blow. 

“What in the world will I do now?” she cried, and I knew she wasn’t speaking just about the damage to her home.

Knowing the trip would now take longer than the weekend we had planned, I agreed to stay on and help her while Jim and Brian returned home.  So for the first time in the 20 years we had known each other, the two of us were living together, without the buffer of our respective mates.

My mother in law was never an easy person to be with.  In the best of times, she was demanding, negative, and emotionally distant.  (My husband would add illogical and self-centered to that list as well.)  When Jim and I first met, she had quite an iron grip on his life, but he quickly began prying her fingers away, and the results weren’t always pretty.    I knew she considered me the interloper, corrupting her precious only son and luring him away from his family.

But we got along all right, and, especially after Brian was born, I think she cared about me in her strange, remote sort of way.  We had grown closer during my father in law’s last illness, as I had spent a good deal of time with them, talking to doctor’s, arranging for care givers, driving her places she needed to go.

So those few days alone in the “place up north” weren’t a terrible burden.   We fell into a routine, as people will.  She always got up early, for she was a woman who was perpetually busy, and one morning after Jim left, I looked out my window and glimpsed her behind the row of blueberry bushes growing along the border between the house and garden.  Quickly plucking fruit from the branches, she had nearly filled the large plastic bowl tucked under her left arm.  I slipped into my clothes and shoes, and stepped out the back door. 

“Are they sweet yet?” I asked.

She looked up, startled, I think, to see me up and dressed so early.  “Well,” she admited, “I don’t know.  I haven’t tried one.”

“For goodness sake,” I chided her good naturedly, making my way through the thick, wet grass, “why don’t you eat some?  It looks like there’s plenty.”  I pinched a fat navy blue berry from its stem and placed it in my mouth, letting my teeth sink into the musky flesh that somehow tastes just like the color blue should taste. 

“Mmmm,” I said, quickly grabbing a few more and greedily gobbling them up.  “So good!”

Almost furtively, she placed a berry in her mouth, as if she weren’t allowed to enjoy them, only pick and collect them for some future use.  She widened her eyes in surprise, and then delight, almost as a child would in discovering a surprise gift of candy.

“Oh, these are good!” she exclaimed.  “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten them right off the bush like this.” 

Such a small pleasure, denied to herself for whatever strange, perverse reason.  So we continued for a while, happily picking, eating, and occasionally tossing a few more berries into the bowl.  It became a ritual of our mornings, those moments in the berry patch, and we’d eat our fill, and then pick more to give to the neighbors.

During those few days that we spent together, cleaning things, buying new furniture and carpet, going through some of my father in law’s things, the balance of power started to shift.  “Now what do you think?” she began to ask me, about everything from buying a sofa to ordering dinner at Ron’s Restaurant.  And she’d take my advice, sometimes even acknowledging “what a good idea” it had been.

Today, as I taste my spoonful of store bought (alas!) blueberries, I think of her as she was earlier this afternoon when I visited her at Chestnut Village, the dementia care center where she lives.  Hunched on the sofa, legs crossed, her chin propped on prayerfully folded hands, she sits and dozes for hours.  Mary Alice, the lovely lady who leads activities, smiled at me, then came over and touched her lightly on the shoulder.

“Chris,” she said, “we’re taking some folks outside to play horseshoes.  Wouldn’t you like to come?”

She looked over at me, eyebrows raised.  “What do you think?” she asked.

“I think you should go play,” I said.  “It sounds like fun.”

“Well, okay then!” she agreed readily, taking Mary Alice’s hand to help her stand up.  I watched her totter unsteadily out of the room, my presence – my very existence, even – already forgotten. 

I always take a small gift when I visit, usually something sweet, like those tins of sugar cookies, or a package of Hershey Kisses. But next time,  I believe I’ll take something different – perhaps a handful of blueberries would be nice.



15 thoughts on “By the Handful

  1. Becca, that is such a beautiful post. With older people, it happens like this, I think. I live with my mom. Both of us are head strong. Living with each other is not easy. And living apart is not easy either. I can’t leave her alone.

    As you say, I too observe a shift of power. Now she is more open minded than she was before. Despite our arguments, we do get along fine. Her only grudge being, I should get married!


  2. It seems like 1993 was generations ago now, but I remember that exact trip up north like it was yesterday. Albeit from my own vastly different perspective — that of a boy with nothing on his mind but his new computer and a late night spent immersed in Wolfenstein 3-D.

    Blueberries and Wolfenstein alike, symbols of the same thing — simpler times, with simpler pleasures.

  3. I had a similar relationship with my mother in law in the early years. Like you and your mother in law, the shift of power occurred later. We then got to know one another in a different way. This was an interesting post, Becca. It makes me think of writing about her. I’ve written about so many members of my family, but not her.

  4. i am in the process of collecting thoughts on dementia,, and alzheimers for a poem i am working on so this was especially of interest to me…

    you told such a beautiful story,, and the feeling behind it will stay with me all day i am sure…

    thank you….

  5. This was a moving memory that was told in a way that gave me chills. I knew of your mother in law’s situation but this gave me so much more of you both. I think you are one terrific daughter in law Becca. xxoo

  6. This is a beautiful post. The way you describe the evolution of your relationship with your mother in law made me nod with recognition, especially as someone who is currently swimming in the stream of it myself.

    Beautiful post, as always.

  7. What a lovely story, Becca! I’m glad your relationship with your mother in law has evolved so wonderfully. It’s not always possible.

  8. This was a lovely tribute to that woman who did move aside and allow you to take your place eventually. Those blueberries are a great motif in the tale – her denying herself the pleasure of a few freshly-picked berries. And that she still asks you “What do you think?” – That is special, I think. A lovely post, Becca, touching me deeply.

  9. This is just beautiful, Becca, a gorgeous and gorgeously told story. Everyone has difficult relationships thrown into their path, and most people just try to run away or avoid them. Your story shows the possibilities in staying around, in continuing to try to connect. This was rich and poignant, and for me, it was just the right thing at just the right time.

  10. You’ve written a piece full of life; now and before and even earlier than that. It distills so much into a handful of berries.

    My father’s dementia is showing me a man I never knew – a kind, happy man I feel such tenderness for now. It’s all about songs and sweets these days, things that are easy enough to find common ground.

  11. This is a lovely story. Absolutely beautiful, touching and so deeply affirming of the ability to grow and change in our relationships and the things that we finally allow ourselves to do. I came to this site just after posting on mine, about my elderly neighbor and blueberry picking (huckleberries, actually), and it had a special resonance for me. It’s stories like this from our lives that keep us hanging in there when we visit those who have changed so very much by age and time. Simply beautiful.

  12. I know this relationship has been a challenge (probably for both of you). And I think it is indicative of many relationships for all of us. The older we get and the more technology that creeps into our lives (guised as convenience), the easier it is not to take the time or make the effort to find common ground with those around us. The story you relate reminds me a bit of “On Golden Pond” and the relationship between Jane and Henry Fonda (berry picking and all).

    I think the blueberries would be a wonderful gift to share; it might just spark that same memory for her.

  13. Great little post taking a simple object like blueberries and weaving a heartfelt story around them. Have you thought about tweaking it for Cabin Life or a Michigan magazine or perhaps a magazine that likes personal reflections?

  14. Nothing much to say here except beautiful. A simple experience, that we deny ourselves some of the most simple things in life — and they provide the most bliss. You are such a wonderful soul. And I love blueberries!!!!

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