Growing Strawberries Again
The bittersweet memories of summer fruits...and motherhood.
When I was a girl, my family had a strawberry patch. On early summer mornings, my mother sent me to the back yard to weed the patch and pick the berries. I’d sit there weeding and eating, flapping the bugs away and feeling the chilly dirt.
My mother was a terrific gardener. In addition to strawberries, we grew zucchini, lettuce, rhubarb, beans, and enormous tomatoes. One year we planted and harvested a row of corn. Another year we put in raspberry bushes.
But the strawberries were special.
They ripened in June, and that’s when we celebrated nearly every family event: my mother’s birthday, my parents’ anniversary, Father’s Day, my birthday, and my brother’s birthday. The ripening strawberries were part of the festivities.
For some reason, my birthday was the occasion when strawberries took center stage. As a little girl, I ordered a strawberry cake for my parties. In later years, my mother made strawberry pie for my birthday. It was a simple but miraculous treat: delicate crust, ripe strawberries laced with a small amount of sugar, and homemade whipped cream.
As my mother aged, she became ill with depression. The depression cloaked her, and then it cloaked our house. As the years went by, spring became unbearable. People prone to depression are often sickest in the spring—as the rest of the world awakens to new life, and as the flowers bloom and the strawberries ripen, sad people are frozen in winter.
The family celebrations became a burden. We still had strawberry pie for my birthday, but we bought it from a local bakery. The years went on, and my mother became angry, abusive and cruel. She taunted me and my sister and brother, told us we were “bad kids,” and refused to pay attention to our activities and accomplishments. She would fly into a rage and storm out of the house, or throw our clothes out the front door. She threatened my father with a knife. She told us repeatedly she hated us, was afraid of us, and hated herself.
By the time I was a teenager, my mother would often check herself into a hospital sometime after Mother’s Day to weather the rest of the spring. Later, when I was a young adult, her suicide attempts would frequently happen in the spring.
Each year, I dreaded Mother’s Day. Most years she would either refuse gifts or, if she opened them, she would give them back in a huff. Sometimes she would retreat to her bedroom in anger or despair. There were no Mother’s Day cards at the store to describe adequately the disappointment, betrayal, and grief I felt about the loss of the mother I had once known.
Around that time, the strawberry patch died. My mother told me strawberry plants only bear fruit for a certain number of years, and so they must be replenished. But my mother stopped planting new, young strawberries. Eventually, the plants stopped bearing fruit.
We three children grew up, went away to college and got married. My mother’s depression deepened. There were no more strawberry pies.
One day, when I was home to visit, I happened to walk into my parents’ bedroom to look for something on their desk. Sitting atop of a pile of papers was the start of a poem, in my mother’s precise grammar school teacher handwriting. The title was “The Strawberry Years Are Gone.”
At the time, it struck me as maudlin and ridiculous. After all, my mother had become a shrew. I hated her for what she had become and what she was doing to us.
By the time I was in my mid-30s, we were all out of the house, and my parents had divorced. My mother was utterly alone. Her hair turned white and began to thin. She was only in her 50s.
But sometimes she would surprise me. Once, when I was having trouble with my elder son, who was in the Terrible Twos, she suggested I put him on a step stool at the kitchen sink and let him play in the water. It worked. She delighted in news that I was planting flowers. She wanted to know what I was cooking for dinner.
Then, 2 ½ years ago, my mother suddenly died of a massive heart attack.
I didn’t miss her, exactly, at first. There was no denying she was a very difficult person. I felt relief that I wouldn’t have to rush to any more emergency rooms, wouldn’t have to worry about her, wouldn’t have to listen to her angry tirades.
Still, she emerged. Like most people in mourning, I felt her presence or saw her shadow or thought I caught a glimpse of her. I would talk to her in my head as I bathed the children or watched them play. I would tell the boys stories of Mistress Mistletoe, a little fairy she made up for me, long before the depression caught hold.
And I felt her in peculiar ways as well. For at least a year after her death, I'd be looking for some work of literature or reference at home and suddenly discover a funny little book she'd sent me-something I'd completely forgotten. One was a collection of quotes about motherhood that she'd mailed when my elder boy was 20 months old. She wrote inside the front cover: "My love to a very special mother-my very own daughter...How I love you! Always, Mom."
Last year, my husband and I bought a rambling old house with a back yard in need of attention. This is our first spring here, and although I never have enough time, I am desperate to garden. My boys love digging in the mud, pulling weeds and planting flowers with me.
The other day I took my younger son to Home Depot to buy lawn bags and fertilizer and all the things you need for spring gardening. As we browsed through azalea bushes and pansies, weed clippers and grass seed--I spotted strawberry plants.
Touching the familiar three-sprigged leaves, I peeked underneath to see the white buds. I imagined a sunny strawberry patch at the end of the yard. I imagined my boys stealing outside to fill themselves with the reddest, ripest, juiciest berries. I imagined a strawberry pie.
"We're going to grow strawberries," I said to my little boy.
And I gently placed the box of new plants in my cart.
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