To the uninitiated, picking chokecherries might seem to be pointless endeavor. The pea-sized fruits are pretty enough, hanging on the bushes in clusters that change as they ripen from a bright orange/red to a maroon so deep it is almost black. But each berry is mostly seed, covered with a thin layer of flesh so bitter that eating one will pucker your mouth for a week. Once picked, the berries have to be cooked, then mashed through a colander to separate the juice and pulp from the seeds. Producing chokecherry juice is a labor-intensive process.
That juice, however, is well worth the effort. Sweetened and cooked with pectin, it produces some of the best jelly you could ever hope to taste.
And that’s why I was out in my back yard yesterday morning, wading through knee-high grass that was still wet from last night’s thunder shower. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and had my jeans tucked into my socks, a fashion faux pas designed to ward off ticks and chiggers.
As I stripped off clusters of chokecherries and dropped them into my bag, I kept thinking about my grandmother. I was remembering summer expeditions when she, my mother, my three sisters, and I, armed with ice cream buckets, would set out to pick chokecherries.
We kids would pick one or two berries at a time, swat at flies and mosquitoes, complain about scratchy branches and tickly tall grass, and periodically compare buckets to see who had picked the most. We always had to taste one chokecherry to verify that they were as tart as they had been the year before. We would get hot, and itchy, and bored, and be ready to go home long before our pails were filled.
Grandma would remind us that we were supposed to be picking berries, not leaves and stems, and that the harder we worked, the sooner we would be finished. All the while she would be methodically stripping off one cluster after another, harvesting every chokecherry she could reach. They would rattle into her bucket in a steady stream, and she usually had her pail half full before any of us had even covered the bottom of ours. She hated to quit while there were any ripe berries left on the bushes.
I discovered yesterday morning that, in the chokecherry-picking department, I am still more like the child I used to be than I am like my grandmother. I certainly pick faster and more efficiently than I did then, but my bag still had an embarrassing amount of stems and leaves mixed in with the berries. I got bored. I kept checking my bag to see how much I had. Even so, I hated to quit while there was still fruit on the bushes, always finding just one more cluster that I could reach if I stretched a little bit further.
I also enjoyed remembering a story that Grandma told me when she was in her 90s. One day, many years earlier, Grandpa had been a few miles away helping a neighbor with some work. Suppertime came, then evening, and finally full dark, and he still hadn’t come home. Grandma lay awake half the night, worrying that he had wrecked the car and was lying hurt in a ditch. Finally, in the wee hours, he showed up, unhurt and quite pleased with himself. On his way home the previous evening, he had come across some berry-laden bushes and had stopped to pick some. He had spent half the night filling the car with chokecherries and brought them home to her.
She didn’t tell me what her response was, but I wonder how pleased she really was with that unexpected bounty. It’s just possible that her plans for the next couple of days hadn’t included cooking a carload of chokecherries. Maybe, that once, there were more than enough chokecherries, even for Grandma.