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.