Nonfiction

Berry Bounty

by Darcy Lipp-Acord

Crazy Woman canyon beckons us this sultry late-August afternoon with promises of cooler air held tight against her walls, nerve-soothing water tumbling down her creek, chokecherries ripened black on the bushes that line her road.

"OK, girls, grab your berry buckets; let's walk down this way a bit," I say as I unfasten car seats and help short legs reach the ground. I'm hoping we can pick enough ripe berries today to make jelly for the winter. Last weekend, most of the chokecherries were wine-red, not quite ripe enough, at least according to my field guide on wild berries. My husband, Shawn, thought they were ready - seemed to remember picking them that way as a kid, in the Tobacco Root Mountains of Montana. But the berries pulled hard from the vine, and when I got the few of them we picked back home, they hardly juiced at all, even after being cooked down.

This is my first summer picking and preserving wild berries. For years I've heard people talk about making chokecherry jelly and wine, but I've never learned how. The only instructions I have are cookbook recipes and Shawn's vague recollections from his childhood. So before we left the house today, I called my mom, to see if she knew anything about picking and rendering chokecherries. "No, I never did that," she said. "They say it's so much work to extract the juice. But I remember your Grandma Lipp doing it."

Grandma Lipp, my dad's mom. Barely a memory of her exists in my mind. She stood less than five feet tall, with blue-gray hair and black-rimmed eyeglasses. She always wore flowered housedresses, often an apron, never pants. In her kitchen was a cupboard drawer — top, left- hand side — filled with candies to give to us grandkids during our weekly visits. She died when I was seven.

"Look, here's a bush just full of berries," I call back over my shoulder to Shawn, who's walking slowly with Maria, our youngest daughter.

"Are they ripe?"

"Looks like it — they're pretty black. The birds have eaten most of the ones on top." I begin pulling a few berries at a time from the bush, dropping them into the ice cream bucket that dangles from my arm.

"Here, do it this way," Shawn suggests, and shows me how to hold the bucket under a cluster of berries, then strip away the whole cluster in one motion, like milking a cow. Last week, the berries weren't ripe enough to strip this way. Plunk-plunk-plunk: they sound like marbles hitting the bottom of the bucket.

We spread out up and down the lane, the girls picking lower branches, Shawn and I the upper. The canyon's echoes warn us of oncoming vehicles, and we periodically grab hands and buckets to duck closer to the thickets. Laura, who is almost six, frequently stops to eat a berry, spitting out the poisonous pits. I wrinkle my nose at her. "What? I like them," she says, mouth wide in a purple, front-toothless grin.

"Ugh! How can you?" I exclaim. "They're so sour!"

"Mom, will the jelly we make taste sour, too?" our four-year-old, Carmen, worries. Carmen dislikes anything sour, even lemonade.

"No, we'll use sugar to make the jelly. It will taste good. Just think - if we pick enough, we can have chokecherry jelly all winter, and every time we eat it, we'll remember berry picking!"

"I like berry picking, Mama," Laura agrees.

Grandmother's Garden
Grandmother's Garden, Giclee Print
Sarah Davis

Grandma Lipp didn't live long enough to introduce me to berrying; it was another lady, a grandma very much like her, who sparked my interest in gathering the wild fruits in the mountains near our home. Grace babysat our girls for three years, when we lived in another part of the state. In fact, our daughters loved her so much they began referring to her as one of their grandmothers.

Providing food for her own family, as well as her daycare children, occupied much of Grace's time and attention. In March, the sunny counters of the daycare's playroom filled with trays of potting soil, tiny seeds hidden beneath the surface. By late spring, the children's projects squabbled with adolescent seedlings for space; I've seen tomato plants growing there that needed staking before they ever went into the garden outside. In summer, the older kids could accompany her to the garden and greenhouse. All fall, her food dehydrator hummed and her kitchen stove simmered with the task of preserving all that bounty. "Grace, you do so much," I'd say, awed by her productivity.

"Oh, well, you know, I require very little sleep," she would always say, waving off the hours of work. "And besides, we do have fun!" and her face and shoulders would scrunch up in a whole-body grin. Her energy brought back faint recollections of my Grandma Lipp, who never seemed to age or tire.

Late one summer, just before Labor Day, I asked Grace if she and her family had plans for the weekend. "Well, yes," she said. "Every Labor Day, we go up to Union Pass to pick the wild currants there."

"Currants?"

"Oh, yes. They're little red berries, about as big as my fingernail. That whole pass is just covered with them! I take the grandkids and we pick and pick - we fill whole five-gallon buckets full! Oh, and they do make the best jelly!"

That weekend, I casually suggested a drive to the Lake of the Woods, on top of Union Pass. Sure enough, as we picnicked and explored the lakeshore, I did find occasional red berries like Grace described. I picked a handful and asked Shawn he knew what kind of berry they were, but he was also unsure. We decided not to pick any.

Leaving those berries there, though I'm sure they provided ample food for the birds and wildlife, still didn't sit well with me. Some part of my womanly nature needed to preserve that treasure, to somehow use that bounty to fortify my family. I could not walk past those tiny bushes without feeling awed at so much nutrition and goodness, all free for the picking. So, this summer, I decided to continue my berry explorations, and bought a field guide. The next weekend, we headed up Crazy Woman canyon, looking for wild raspberries. It was late-July, prime season for them. We started looking in a spot where we'd seen blossoming bushes during our 4th of July camping trip.

The canyon didn't reveal many of her wild raspberries that day. She did, however, uncover another treasure: mountain gooseberries, plump purple globes hanging over the creek banks on thorny vines. Picking them, even gloved, pricked our fingers, so we let the girls play while we sacrificed our calloused, grownup hands. But they tasted too wonderful to not pick - bursts of tangy-sweet juice exploded from each bite. I imagined gooseberry jelly on fresh rolls with venison steak and fried apples in the fall.

When I got the berries home, I discovered that the picking wasn't the only hard part. Although I'd learned to make jam from my mom, I'd never attempted to extract just a fruit's juice for jelly. I didn't have the necessary equipment, so I spent hours one morning pressing cooked berries against a sieve with the back of a wooden spoon. Then I stood at the stove stirring the juice and sugar together until the natural pectin in the berries caused the mixture to thicken. At the end of the morning I had five jars of deep purple jelly. I felt pride at making the treat with only the equipment I had on hand.

Grandma Lipp must have known how to make-do, also. Family stories abound with details of how she used whatever resources she had. She made men's torn work shirts over into children's clothes. She prepared homemade horseradish sauce from the plant that grew in our farmyard, peeling the tough stalks and grinding them by hand with vinegar and spices. Grandma processed all the meat and sausage from the pigs Dad and his brothers butchered; showed my mom how to fry the testicles from castrated bull calves at branding time; and asked Mom to save the chicken feet from our late-summer butchering so she could pickle them. While my maternal grandmother embodied domesticity with a heavy dose of propriety, to me Grandma Lipp was domesticity mixed with grittiness, wildness, rawness. As I now clamber up a slope to pick the top of a chokecherry bush, my hands are already stained violet and my fingernails are ragged and dirty; I smile, feeling a kinship with my dad's mom.

I didn't feel the same way ten or fifteen years ago. Then, I felt sorry for my grandmother, for the lack of opportunities she had. I thought then that a life revolving around domestic chores was boring and unfulfilling. I promised myself I would never be "just a housewife," like she was. When I filled out college applications, I always neglected to mention my numerous 4-H awards, even the "Top Home Economics" award that earned me a trip to Denver in 1985. Away at school, I ate all meals in the campus food center, or survived on ramen noodles and instant macaroni and cheese. When friends baked special birthday cakes, I pretended I didn't know how to help them, even though I'd won awards for cakes I baked for the county fair at home. Domestic skills were so embedded in my childhood, in the heritage I had received from my grandmothers, that they felt like a trap: if I fell into them, would I ever be able to climb out into making a life of my own?

I changed out of necessity. Moving into my own apartment meant reteaching myself how to cook, and out came the boxed-up cookbooks my mom gave me. I began to feel a little pleasure in spending an evening after classes baking brownies or cookies to share with my neighbor across the hall. When I met and married Shawn, we adopted traditional roles because my school schedule allowed me to be home early enough to start supper. I experimented with countless recipes, serving anything from rancher's round steak to Chinese food. Cooking and keeping house became sources of pride, much to my chagrin.

And now, with three daughters to feed, my domestic chores have multiplied. We are here today, spending our Sunday afternoon picking berries, because I like to serve my family food that I have prepared myself. Food that is prepared with love and care, not chemicals. The irony sometimes shocks me: after quitting my teaching career to raise my children, I have become "just a housewife," like my grandmothers. The difference is that I made my choice freely and consciously; cultural norms did not decide for me the way they did for them. On the contrary, modern society often makes me feel ashamed of my choice, as though I live a diminished life by being "just" a homemaker instead of a teacher, CEO or pediatrician. Although I strive toward a writing career, I find my life's real work in nurturing my family. In doing "women's work." I wonder if Grandma Lipp, who did not have a choice, still felt this satisfaction.

I long to ask her, to talk with her now, as an adult woman: the seven years I shared with her are a scarce source of her wisdom. I have Grandma Lipp's candy dish, her height, her poor eyesight. Other parts of her legacy are lost on me. I sew, but only with a pattern to follow. I cook, but not from her recipes. I know how to make my maternal grandma's roast beef and my mom's fried chicken, but I don't know how to make brats and sauerkraut like Grandma Lipp. I'm more likely to cook spaghetti or tamales for supper than anything German. And although I've baked hundreds of chocolate chip cookies, apple pies and white velvet cakes, I still don't know how to make blachenda, the pumpkin-filled turnovers my Dad loved from his childhood home.

Some things I do know: that Grandma was born in North Dakota, the daughter of German immigrants from Russia. That she married my grandpa, himself an immigrant, in 1920, at the age of 18. They started their life together farming on the border between the Dakotas, near a tiny reservation town. She bore nine children there, including Dad. In 1944, with her three oldest sons at war, she moved with the rest of the family to a farm near Glencross, South Dakota, settling among German-Russian neighbors and making a home there for twenty years. Just years after her oldest sons returned safely from war, she watched her other two go again, this time to Korea. She never lost a son in war, but she mourned two of her children - Fritz, who died moving cattle in a lightning storm in 1967, and Betty, who died of lupus in 1968. At the end of their career, she and Grandpa left the farm, retiring to a tiny purple house in town so that we, the grandkids, could grow up in the country. In 1977, she died of emphysema.

Skeletal facts. A biography, nothing more. I want to know so much. How did she endure the endless hours alone, raising all those children while Grandpa worked the fields? Why did she raise her daughters cloistered in domesticity while only the sons worked in the fields? When did she decide her home would have a windbreak hemmed with nearly a quarter mile of lilac bushes? And how did she persuade my practical grandfather to plant them? How did she feel, sending all five of her sons off to wars? Who comforted her through the loss of two adult children? How did she keep faith in her God through all that? And why, after battling asthma and emphysema for nearly forty years, did she finally succumb to it?

I crawl back down the hill, returning to my family at the bottom of the canyon. The girls are begging to cool off down by the creek, where snow-melt tumbles over rock. Legend tells that a ghost haunts this canyon - a crazy woman. In pioneer times, the Crow Indians reputedly killed a man and his children, either out of malice or in revenge for some crime. The Crows inhabited these mountains, the Big Horns - the Shining Mountains, to them - and understandably resented white presence. The story says that, upon finding her husband and children murdered, the woman went crazy, and that her cries still echo here by the creek at night.

Her presence doesn't frighten me; if she is here, she's simply looking for her family. I understand her insanity as I look at my three sleeping daughters now nestled in the back seat of the pickup, sunburned and dirty, but safe. In one horrible afternoon, probably in less than ten minutes, the woman lost not only those she loved most, but her entire purpose for living. I daydream for a moment, imagining that she was spared from the slaughter because she was down at the creek hauling water, or perhaps even gathering berries - doing some chore that was part of caring for her family. The story says that the Crows allowed her to continue living in their territory because she had been "touched"; I say that the Crows knew killing her would be a mercy. As we drive down to the mouth of the canyon, I silently thank her for her bounty and pray for her soul.

Grandma Lipp was "touched" by loss, too: loss of homes, of crops, of children. How did she keep going? Even as my mind asks the question, I begin to know the answer from deep in my woman's soul: she went on because there were others to care for. Because there was still work to be done. Like Grace, my grandma stayed youthful because of the children and grandchildren who relied on her. The crazy woman lost her mind because she had no more reason for living. And in that instant, I know that I will not be ready to leave this world until my own real work is done: my own children raised, my own grandchildren growing. Grandma Lipp let the emphysema take her because, at age 77, she was finally ready to rest.

On the day after our chokecherrying, I stand once again at the kitchen sink, washing and sorting berries. I seem to know instinctively which berries will juice; after testing a few, I discard those that don't have the right "feel." I am amazed at how much easier today's jelly making is; it's as though I'm being guided. The connection is there, though fragile. Perhaps this autumn, after the pumpkins ripen, I'll find a recipe for blachenda in my Catholic women's cookbook from back home. Maybe I'll even serve it with brats and sauerkraut.

By noon, I have twenty-three jars of burgundy jelly lined up on my counter. Along with the jars of gooseberry jelly I made last week, it is enough for the winter, at only the expense of sugar, time and sweat. I think Grandma would be proud of me.

We have chokecherry jelly on toast the next morning, after it has set up. The spread tastes sweetly piquant, like store-bought cherries mixed with sage and mountain air. "Mommy, this is good! I want some more!" the girls exclaim. As I reach for more bread, my imagination hears the mournful wailing of wind through Crazy Woman canyon, sees the selfless grin of the Union Pass mountain ridges, and feels the welcome cool of a chokecherry draw pocketed into the Dakota prairie.

The granddaughter of immigrants, Darcy Lipp-Acord grew up on the northern Great Plains, on a farm where three generations of her family have lived. She currently resides on a ranch near the Montana-Wyoming border, where she and her husband are raising six children. She taught high-school English and Spanish for ten years, and now works part-time as a young adult librarian, while continuing her work as a freelance writer and editor. Lipp-Acord's essays have been published in several anthologies, including Woven on the Wind: Women Write of Friendship in the Sagebrush West (Houghton Mifflin, 2001); Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West (Houghton Mifflin, 2004); and My Heart's First Steps (Adams Media, 2003).

In 2001, she was awarded the Neltje Blanchan Doubleday award for women writers from the Wyoming Arts Council, and is currently a roster artist for the Wyoming Arts Council's Tumblewords program. She has also won an honorable mention for the Wyoming Arts Council's creative writing fellowship in 2003, and 3rd place in the 2007 Wyoming Writers nonfiction contest. She has done readings of her work throughout the region, most recently at the Casper (WY) Art Core's Poetry and Music series and at the John R. Milton Writer's Conference at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Contact Info: dlacord@wildblue.net

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