By Gianna Soderstrom
I see the pointed leaves of wild raspberries and the memory comes back.
I balance my bicycle between my legs, front wheel turning heavily towards the woods. There are wild raspberries in my hand. Dad smiles. I reach for more; red ripe fruit hides under the wide leaves. Sunshine has reached through the aspen canopy of green. There is a glow around us like light in a cathedral of trees. Dad’s voice changes in the woods. We seem to stand on holy ground.
“The ones that slide off easily in your hand are the ripe ones,” he tells me.
It was mid-July when I first learned about wild raspberries. We were camping, camping all together on our summer trip to Bemidji State Park. The Minnesota woods were a welcome reprieve from our prairie farm: layers of forest grew, damp and green, on every side of the campgrounds. Mosquitos thick as air were somehow outweighed by still lake water in the morning, and the call of loons at night. I can picture our old Eureka! brand tent sprawling family-size behind a tongue of gravel, battered water skis from Dad’s youth piled beside a tree, red cooler with the lid that didn’t close tightly being dragged into the shade again when the afternoon sun shifted.
We rode our bikes single-file down the winding paved path; Josh and I weaving side-to-side and attempting to break each other’s Distance Ridden Without Hands record. Mom held back, keeping pace with younger siblings in the middle of the strung-out pack. Eventually our family caught up with us as we waited at a fork, all but Dad and Kiara, the second youngest. I turned around, volunteering to find where they’d gotten hung up.
Dad was stopped by the side of the trail. Kiara struggled up a hill behind him.
“Wild raspberries,” he said with a sly smile, and popped a red berry in his mouth. I remembered the way he taught me to scan the woods for wildlife. He, highly observant as a habit, had identified a treasure we had all missed.
For years of camping trips afterward I found ways to quiz Dad quietly, asking him whether the raspberries would be ripe yet. I’d race Josh across the bridge, attempt to ride with no hands between the metal gates that barred vehicles on the trail, hold my breath to keep from panting while I competed to be the first one up the hills. But when we came to the large aspen grove, white trees in their haze of golden-green light stretching out between the ferns, I’d drop back “to check on Dad and Kiara” with a shrug that was maybe too innocent.
I grew up, and put childhood far behind me. I moved to Colorado after college, accepted a bank teller job with a strict dress code, started shopping at Sprouts during my lunch break. I was proud of the way my low heels clicked on the tile, the way I paused, running my fingers through my hair while I perused the weekly ads. Strawberries would be on sale for weeks at a time. When blueberries were discounted I'd buy several cartons. I'd eat one entire container for my afternoon snack, sitting in my sunbaked car and pretending I enjoyed it more than the crowded but air-conditioned break room. When avocados were in season I ate avocado toast for dinner. I broiled the meals in the shared apartment kitchen but I ate alone in my room. It was my comfort food after a long day of work; the seclusion seemed to counter achingly long days of customer service.
I was proud of finding those sales, of shopping at a farmer's market like Sprouts. I could hear the awe in Mom's voice when she called.
"I bet you're eating super healthy," she'd say, "Probably losing lots of weight. What kind of coconut oil did you say you use?"
"Just any kind really, though usually even the inexpensive stuff is cold-pressed." I tried to talk casually, like she knew what I was talking about. Like I knew what I was talking about.
My mother-in-law says food is her love language. She likes to nourish people. There's always room at her table for another chair, even when that table is a small round affair shoved into a nook in the kitchen, the water pitcher on a counter nearby so we have space for our plates; small people squeeze in the back, please.
I have eaten at that table enough times that memories have collected in the corners of the kitchen like cobwebs. I know without asking that the padded chairs are for my slim husband and his dad; less natural padding and hard chairs, or something along those lines. I know which angle to sit at so that when I slide my chair back I don't hit the window on one side or kitchen hutch on the other.
When the moment is ripe and the plates empty my father-in-law will say slyly, “Shall we retire?” He will look at his wife with a straight face, and she will smile at the allusion to her preference for British TV shows. There is something about experimental chocolate cake eaten cozily on couches amidst inside jokes and the infectious belly-laughter of my brother-in-law that tops even sale-price avocado toast. The ceiling fan whirls cool air into the room through the open patio doors. It takes all the flying puns from decades of familial humor for my bank-teller thoughts to slip off their low heels and join the laughter that tastes good without being certified organic.
It is years after this that I find a home outside the city again. My husband, Grant, is hired as a summer camp director and for three months each year we will move to a cabin in the Colorado mountains. He and I walk around the lake at summer camp one evening when we first move up. He tells me again the story of how he and his co-counselors were told to weed the areas between the boulders of the damn that they call The Darn. They had meticulously finished about thirty percent of their work when the property manager discovered they’d pulled up not just the weeds but all the wild raspberries, and gave them what-for. We laughed together comfortably. I look down the sides of The Darn at the small stiff cane poking up between stones. The raspberries are certainly coming back well.
The stifling years of banking that began to dissolve in kitchen-table laughter ebb away with finality when I find myself at home in the woods at camp. The scratches of raspberry cane against my bare legs heal the last scars of the bank teller job I hated. The weight of a one-year-old on my back while we wander through the woods lifts the weight of my old work.
I remember eating those first wild berries with Dad, the weight of the bike leaning against my thigh. I again hear the excitement that crept into Dad's voice when he taught us about the woods he loved. I remember learning about the trees from him. Mom quizzed us on our trees by tickling our noses with their leaves. Dad taught us from the heart; there was no tickling, only a deep love of all things wild that made his knowledge gold and the woods sacred.
I try to remember all the places I’ve noticed the rough shapes of raspberry leaves over the spring. I wander back quietly, hoping to find and collect the sweet red memories before everyone else catches up. In mid-July I see the first berries. I pick one and eat it: it is tart and it tastes like a wild dream. In a few days there are more berries. We walk around the lake again, this time with our baby on Grant’s back. We named him Erik, like my Dad. I linger, slowing down Grant’s long strides across the open back of The Darn. There are raspberries to pick. Nostalgia warms me; I put a raspberry in Erik’s mouth. He grimaces with the burst of tang and then smiles widely around the sweetness. I shape a memory in the sunshine, saving it for us to taste again next summer.
The raspberries hide under wide leaves, like they did ten years ago. I carry Erik on my back and feed him raspberries over my shoulder when they are ripe enough to slide off easily in my hand. Sunlight shines gently off the pine needles as it reaches through the woods. I slip a little, my feet wedged against slanted holy ground. The boy on my back leans heavily towards the road. The stems of the raspberry bushes scratch my arms as I brush the pointed leaves aside, in search of a glimpse of bright red.