Picking Blackberries: How to Develop Personal Tales
By: Granny Sue
Picking blackberries this summer brought back a flood of memories,
especially of days spent in the berry patch as a young mother, picking berries with my four older sons. We spent a lot of time picking
berries-they were a mainstay of our diet because I canned them for winter cobblers, made them into jam for topping pancakes, toast, and biscuits or for sweetening oatmeal, or canned blackberry juice to mix with the juice from the Concord grapes. Sometimes, when the berries were exceptionally plentiful, I made blackberry wine too, which I mixed with elderberry wine to make a clear red wine with a nice bite.
Our farm had many berry patches in the old overgrown pastures, and we found even bigger and better berries along the logging roads on White Rose Ridge, a few miles away. We didn’t worry too much about snakes, although we kept our eyes open for them. We didn’t worry about scratches and pricks on our arms either, and it usually looked like we had been in a catfight after a week of berry picking.
Fingernails were stained a deep purple, and fingertips were an odd gray color from the stain of berries that did not come out, even if we washed them with bleach water. Every berry-picking trip was followed by a careful body search for ticks and other hitchhikers from the woods. For us, it was worth the pain and the stains. Blackberry cobbler in winter warmed the heart and the mind and brought back those golden summer days. Homemade blackberry jam on toast or biscuits was worth every scratch and bloody arm we suffered.
The summer that stands out in my mind, though, was the year when the temperatures reached records every day, and the heat was accompanied by high humidity. We did not have electricity on our farm then, and the trees around the house were still young and not yet giving shade, so we suffered through the heat as best we could. The hose was a good way to cool off if the spring was running well enough to allow us to use water for cooling rinses and water play outside.
That summer, I did not want to pick berries-it was too hot, and if I picked them, I had to process them, adding to the heat with the stove’s heat. But I had forgotten how it was to be young when the heat was only an interesting phenomenon that meant suntans got darker. Derek and Aaron, who were about seven and eight years old that summer, didn’t care about the heat-they wanted berries! Well, actually-they wanted blackberry cobbler. Cobbler from fresh berries was a treat only to be had in July when the berries were in season, and they knew it. Once I canned the berries, it was hands-off until the snow flew.
When they asked about a cobbler, I pointed out how hot it was and said it was just too hot for berry picking. I’d be happy to make a cobbler for them if I had berries, but…Oh, no, they said it wasn’t too hot! And out they went, with their buckets and water bottles. I was sure they’d be back in five minutes or less, but they stayed out for a half hour, and when they came back, they had enough berries to make that cobbler. And me? I had to keep my end of the bargain, and that night we all enjoyed fresh berry cobbler.
I’m not sure why I remember this so well. Maybe it’s because the boys were so young but had such determination. Or maybe it’s because the berries that were so important to us and many other country folks are often left to hang and rot these days, not worth the time and trouble to harvest. Or maybe it’s because that one day captures for me such a clear memory of what our life was like then, with all its hardships and richness. Whatever the reason, I will always see those two little boys carrying in their buckets of berries with beaming, sweaty faces every time I pass a patch of ripening berries.
Finding Stories in Memories
Blackberries is not a story with lots of action, pathos, mystical elements or excitement. It’s a memory, a story about a time gone by, a story to be told to my grandchildren and to friends to give them a mental taste of what it was like to live in the country and pick berries. We all have such stories within us that are recalled by a specific incident, by seeing an old toy at a flea market, tasting a certain food, or passing a place from our past. These stories need to be told, as important in our lives as the stories we find in fairytale and folktale collections. These kinds of stories keep us in touch with our roots and allow our descendants to understand a little of how we-and they-came to be who we are today.
How can you call up those long-forgotten memories? Many books on the market today can help you with this by providing guidance and exercises. Here are a few simple tips to get you started:
How Do I Get an Idea for a Personal Story? The first step is the easiest and the hardest. One way that works for many people is to have a list of questions asking about specific life events. For example: · Do you remember your first day of school? What were you wearing? Did you walk or ride the bus? Did you know other kids or was it a strange and scary place for you? Who was your teacher? What was he/she like? Were you afraid of them? Was your teacher old or young? What did you have for lunch? How did you feel by the end of the school day?
Or: · How old were you when you learned to ride a bike? Was it your bike or someone else’s? What color was it? Did it have training wheels? Were you scared or excited? Who taught you to ride? How did your first bike wreck happen? Did you get hurt?
Those are just two examples of probing your past for those memories that might develop into stories to tell. Developing these memories into stories takes time. Here are a couple suggestions for ways to develop your basic story line:
1. Take the time to remember. We are all so busy these days, and reminiscing takes time. It also takes talking to other who might have been there or might remember the incident you are trying to recall. Take the time to talk to them, to call them or email them, and ask them to share their memories with you.
2. Write things down. It won’t come to you as a full-fledged story at first, probably. It will be bits and pieces that will start fitting together once you’ve collected enough of them. For me, the blackberry story was a memory jogged by picking berries this weekend, and talking with my husband as we picked. He had memories too, different than mine because he was raised in a different area-but we both remember the time we spent in the berry patches, and talking together about those things helped me remember even more.
3. Talk to people. I wrote a post to the Storytell list about the berries, and that prompted replies from other people who also had memories of berrypicking. Their memories stirred up still others for me, and suddenly I found the bones of a story. It’s not a polished story, possibly not even a story for performance, but for me it has meaning and importance.
4. Give it time. Let it simmer in your brain, add to it as you remember more.
5. Tell it! Repeated tellings will hone your story as you discover what it is in your tale that makes it something others want to hear.
There are many valuable aspects of family storytelling besides the joy of simple entertainment. Children who listen to their elders tell stories learn a lot about communication, about their personal history, about the values shared by their family. Children who are allowed to share their own stories in these family gatherings learn to develop a tale that others want to hear through repeated tellings, finding out what works and what doesn’t. They also learn that they are not alone in being afraid, embarrassed, angry, silly, or any one of the myriad emotions we express through the medium of story.
Remember: All stories don’t have to be performance pieces. Storytelling is a wonderful tool for gathering family memories, creating bonds between generations, and for preserving those things we feel are worth preserving in our past. Telling stories at family gatherings reminds us that we are connected in more ways than blood alone, that we have a shared history of experience that unites us and gives meaning to the word family.
I highly recommend Donald Davis’ book Telling Your Own Stories (August House, 1993, ISBN 0-87483-235-7) as a great place to begin your search for personal stories. This little book is full of sage advice, questions to help you prod your memory, and advice on collecting more information and telling your tale.
A more recent title that is chock-full of great advice on ways to incorporate storytelling into your family’s life is Creating a Family Storytelling Tradition; Awakening the Hidden Storyteller by Robin Moore (ISBN 0874835658).
Bringing the Story Home: The Complete Guide to Storytelling for Parents by Lisa Lipkin has tips for parents and caregivers on developing a storytelling tradition in the family. (ISBN: 039304775X)
The Family Storytelling Handbook by Anne Pellowski is one of the standards in the field of family storytelling. (ASIN: 0027706109)
The Moral of the Story: Folktales for Character Development by Bobby and Sherry Norfolk illustrates how to use storytelling and folktales to start conversations with children on moral and ethical questions. Excellent for either classroom or family use. (ISBN 0-87483-542-9)
Susanna “Granny Sue” Holstein develops her stories from folklore, history, and personal narratives. She began telling stories professionally in 1995 and has performed and presented workshops from Boston, Massachusetts to Bellingham, Washington. In 2000 she was a Featured Regional Teller at the National Storytelling Conference.