Black-eyed Pea Picking

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I recently finished teaching Seamus Heaney’s poem “Blackberry Picking” to my AP English class.  It’s one of my favorite poems. It touches so strongly on some of my own childhood memories.   When I was five years old, we moved to Azle, Texas.  Azle was very different from the flat, empty north Texas environment where I had spent the beginning of my life.  Even though a child, I could still appreciate the aesthetic difference. It was greener.  It spread out with bushes and trees and life.   We lived in a small housing development of the just-budding suburb of Forth Worth.  In our small backyard, we had trees to climb, places to hide, and a natural sandbox to dig.  The dirt would turn red, and my brother and I dreamed up scenarios of digging to Hell to kill the devil and rid the world of evil for once and for all.  We spent a lot of time in the backyard, but occasionally my mother would take us to the woods behind our privacy fence.  It was on those trails where my brother learned to ride a bike, and we would pick wild blackberries.

This is my favorite memory of that time.  A blackberry cobbler is a sweet reminder of that innocence gone by.  If I could travel in time, I would certainly go back there. But memories are all that remain, not the physical pleasure of eating blackberries.  It can only be recalled not recaptured.

Picking fruits and vegetables seem a common theme in my most precious memories.  Maybe it’s because my family spent so much time in the kitchen when I was growing up.  We picked together, canned together, cooked together, ate together.  This is what I remember and hold on to.

Shelling black-eyed peas is one of the last quality moments where I got to be with my dad–before he got sick, before the cancer ate him away.   We had visited the farmer’s market just outside of town where we purchased two bushels of black-eyed peas.  We sat on the back porch.  All his grandchildren were with him, seated at his feet in a circle with their own portions of peas and small bowls.  We shelled peas, listened to classic country, and filled our own “milk cans, pea tins, and jam pots.”  He recounted for me much of my family history, what he had uncovered in his years of genealogical research.  For what I remember, despite the acute summer heat, it was perfect.

The next day we pulled out the pressure cooker and canned them.  I brought cases of jars back to Colorado to eat during the school year when snow would cover the ground and I would want a meal that tasted like home.  Even before we know how sick he was, I would ration out these jars.  They were special.  I  had to make them last until next year when we would gather on my parent’s porch and work on another bushel or two.

I had one jar left when he passed. “Each year I [hope] they’d keep, knew that they would not.”

Blackberry-Picking

BY SEAMUS HEANEY

for Philip Hobsbaum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

 

 

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