From Issue I (2016)
by CYNTHIA SCOTT WANDLER
Mom and I are at a specialty seed store in the city: I am expanding my gardening repertoire, venturing into fertilizer and heirloom seeds. I see a carton of moss-growing gel, photos of melons I didn’t know could grow in Alberta, seeds for familiar flowers in exotic colors, and then—sunberries. Mom finds them on the shelf, holds them out to me, tells me that in all her years she has never actually seen a seed packet of them for sale before. Of course I buy them.
They are labeled sunberries on the front, but the phrase “also known as wonderberries” on the back is a thrilling confirmation of my Internet research years before. Grandma never called them by either name; to her, they were always known as schwarzbeeren.
There wasn’t much we could afford to gorge ourselves on when I was a kid, but we could eat as many berries from the garden as we wanted. Smatterings of fine gray garden soil speckled the eggplant purple of the berries, kicked up from water droplets hitting the earth around the plants, but that didn’t matter to me. I would hold the plant with one hand, close my other hand over a bunch of berries, then tug them from their tiny star-shaped sepals. If it was hot and the skins were stretched with warm juices inside, one or two berries would burst in my hand. I gobbled them up, licking the green seeds from my palm before grabbing another handful as their licorice-like flavor lingered between the roof of my mouth and my tongue.
The berry plants also grew in a sunny, sheltered corner next to the concrete front steps of the farmhouse, where they had re-seeded themselves from the raised flower beds above. The precise path which bore the berry seeds from the garden across the driveway into the flower beds was a secret shared between the garden and the prairie wind that visited it. Ants lived beside the front steps too, small granular hills marking the doorways into their underground subway system. Grandma and I were watching them. “Here,” she said, “put this beside them, see what happens.” Swept into her hand from our lunch sandwiches at the table inside, she dumped crumbs into my palm. I squatted, dropping the crumbs one at a time, aiming them into the path of an ant, as much as one can aim a crumb or anticipate an ant’s path.
I observed an ant feeling out a crumb, then tried to see what little ant part it was using for dragging our lunch leftovers. I asked Grandma what kind of ants they were and she said we should look it up in the encyclopedia. When my legs got tired from squatting, I left the little village and went inside to the bookcase. I pulled out the “A” book, looked up “Ants.” I carried the encyclopedia back outside and showed it to Grandma. That’s when I learned they were pavement ants, that ants are very strong, that they have a queen.
The next time I came to visit, Grandma had a plastic ant farm waiting for me, two plexiglass sheets in a frame. We packed the space between the sheets with dirt, then collected ants and flicked them down onto it, snapping the lid closed. Sometimes I remained indoors, watching the ants shift one granule of dirt at a time in the see-through tunnels of this second subway. Other times I went outside to examine the ant village from above, poking stalks of dried grass into their holes to see what they would do.
When we had to leave the farm to return to Alberta, I cried and cried. I wanted Grandma, my cousins, my aunty who was only a few years older than me. I wanted to walk forever in the woods outside, seeking the carved initials of my aunts and uncles, a scavenger hunt marked by ridges of scarred wood. I loved exploring the collapsed granaries, lifting warped boards to look for mice nests, climbing over my aunty’s childhood forts, buried in long green grasses. I wanted to keep searching for mica in the hidden valley, to slice between its soft rock layers with a sharp knife. I would miss eating the berries, I would miss the ants. I could hardly bear it.
When I was an adult, my husband and I lived in Saskatchewan for a while, a precious, golden, glowing return. By then the farm had been bought by one of my uncles, and Grandma had moved into a house in town. We didn’t have a garden plot at our house, but she did: the empty lot on her property had grown veggies ten years ago. She and I decided it was time for it to produce again.
We discussed what we should plant where and whether we should run rows vertically or horizontally. We both knew she was the one with the real experience, and anything I offered was naïve, but she entertained my opinions anyway.
We planted peas from the Old Country. I didn’t really know what the Old Country was—maybe Russia?—and questioned silently how the seeds could possibly still be pure when they’d had decades to cross breed. Still, I rolled a hard, wrinkled pea between my thumb and finger and imagined my great-great-grandmother doing the same.
Beans, onions, beets, lettuce, mixed flowers, and, of course, potatoes kept company with the peas. Each time I returned to the garden, Grandma had incorporated something new. She planted more flowers in all the available spaces, tucked between the rows. She hilled the potatoes, formed troughs for the beans, and staked the peas. When I watered, she taught me to point the hose a couple of inches away from the base of the plants so as not to shock them with the cold.
Seven months pregnant with my first child, I sat in the coarse grass at the edge of the garden with my knees up, reaching far over my belly to pull weeds. “You shouldn’t be working so hard, little lady,” Grandma said. I snorted. She had raised thirteen children of her own and six orphaned nephews while living on a farm with an alcoholic husband. As I pulled more weeds, she sat on the deck in her long pants and wide-brimmed gardening hat, facing me. She told me about the happenings in the lives of other people in town, as if I knew exactly who she was talking about. As she spoke, she paused once in a while to name the bird flutter-hopping from the top of one pine tree to the next, or the bird swooping overhead for insects.
I was stretching beyond my weed-pulling reach when I noticed the berry plant, then another and another. This patch of garden that hadn’t been a garden for ten years—had, in fact, been grown-in lawn until seven weeks ago—was sprouting the berry plants from my youth.
When I finished weeding, I brewed us each a cup of tea and then sat beside Grandma on the deck. I pointed out the spider picking its way along the tightrope between two geraniums in her planter, and we kept track of its progress while we sipped and watched the sky paint itself into darkness.
As the berries ripened—the berries we mistakenly called blackberries as kids—I picked handful after handful, some for me, some for the pail. I told Grandma I was going to make jam although I never had before. Later, cooling jar in hand, I centered a label over it, then stuck it on, smoothing the edges. It was time to write the jam flavor and the date on the label, to be inducted into the club to which generations of women in my family belonged. That labeling was the official stamp of a jam maker—except I didn’t know what kind of jam I’d actually made. I looked it up on the Internet, scrutinizing pictures and descriptions of berries, until I knew I was right: I picked the more magical name of the two the berries went by, the more appropriate name. I went back to my blank label: Wonderberry Jam, I wrote.
We planted the garden together the next season, and in the season after that, it was my son Grandma taught where to point the hose when watering. That fall, she sat on a chair in the garden beside tall wildflowers and held my swaddled infant daughter on her lap as I harvested the rest of the potatoes. My son was on his knees plucking seeds from a sunflower head, making hills of them on the soil at her feet. He paused now and then to grab a fistful of berries from the pail beside him, dirt sticking to the juice on his hands.
Two years later, having moved to the city but back in Saskatchewan to deal with the house we still owned there, Mom asked me to take some flowers to the hospital for Grandma, for her birthday. Grandma had been in and out of hospital for most of that time, and now the doctor thought her cancer might be back.
I peered around the corner as I stepped into Grandma’s room, hesitant in case she already had a visitor. She was alone, lying on her side toward the door, blankets tugged up to her jawline. She wasn’t wearing her glasses, might have been dozing. I walked over to the bed.
“Hello,” she said, opening her eyes.
“Hi Gram, I brought you some flowers for your birthday, from all of us.” I held them low in front of her bed, in her line of sight. “Can you see them?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said smiling, but I wasn’t sure.
I had visited her in hospital often before, had driven her there sometimes myself. She always wanted to make sure she had goodies to offer the people who came to visit her and would send me to the gift shop to buy butterscotch candies or a package of cookies. No matter whether she felt tired or ill, she never sent anyone away so she could rest. “Here, here, have a little goodie, help yourself,” she would say from her hospital bed. “I’m in the best place, getting the best care,” she would add, as a lab tech came in for another vial of blood or the nurse interrupted to adjust her IV. “That’s fine, you don’t have to leave,” she’d tell family if they made moves to let her sleep. “So tell me about your day.”
I set the bouquet I’d brought on the ledge under the window. There were two other vases of flowers there and a half dozen cards. I didn’t see any candies or cookies.
I squatted in front of her beside the hospital bed and rested my hand on her shoulder. “There were some cedar waxwings outside our kitchen window this morning,” I said, “eating the frozen crabapples on the tree.” I could picture them, sleek gray and sharp black, fluttering wings knocking pomegranate fruits onto our driveway below, rolling piles to be swept away later. “I lifted Georgia up onto the counter so she could watch them. It was pretty neat.” I bit the inside of my lower lip, hard. “I learned that from you, you know, appreciating nature.”
She smiled, her eyes closed.
“Okay Gram, Happy Birthday, love you.”
“Love you more,” she said, eyes still closed.
I kissed her cheek, gave her shoulder a little rub through the blanket. I stood up and looked at her, drank her in. Left.
The hospital door delivered me into an alternate reality. My family was waiting in the idling van across the parking lot. I hefted my feelings into the passenger seat while the kids watched their DVD in the back and my husband texted on his work phone. I turned toward the passenger side window, my back a shield, my mind still in the room with Grandma. “Are you okay?” my husband asked as we drove out of the parking lot. I couldn’t quite answer him.
I looked out my window at the Saskatchewan prairie rolling by. It was the landscape of my childhood memories, cradling my first loves. The purple crocuses and squatting prickly pear cactuses, the white-tipped foxes and poking antler sheds. The berries, the ants. Grandma. A few of my tears overflowed their eyelid cups, my reflection superimposed over the fields as we passed by.
Four weeks later, I was in the van again when Mom phoned. Grandma was dying—they were calling the family in. Mom would be leaving within the half hour to make the three-hour drive. We hung up and I knew that with two children to organize and my husband at work in the city, I wouldn’t make it on time. I sat in the parking lot. I thought about waxwings.
Now the wonderberry plants have grown, although late because I sowed the seeds too deeply at first: it was only after they should have sprouted and hadn’t that I’d remembered Grandma saying not to push the seeds too deep, they need light, so I’d scratched the seeds closer to the surface. I see green berries hanging in clusters, but I don’t think they will ripen in time. I check them every day anyway, searching for purple. Then two hard frosts curl the plant leaves over the berry bunches and I sigh at having to wait another whole year before I can taste the Saskatchewan prairie again. The frosts are followed by two weeks of hot summer weather and I feel robbed because my plants would still be full and vibrant if not for those two misplaced nights of silvery cold.
One day, the kids and I arrive home after I’ve picked them up at school. Moving into the backyard from the driveway, I see shiny red strawberries in our berry patch and call the kids over. They squat to pick them and I trail my fingers through the curled wonderberry leaves. Then I see purple. I am lucky to grab a few berries as the kids, alerted by my exclamation, swarm me and scoop the rest, licking the seeds from their palms.
Cynthia Scott Wandler
Cynthia Scott Wandler is a writer whose work is expanding beyond the hundreds of newspaper articles she has written. She participates in Story Slam and quick-story events, placing first one glorious time. Living in Morinville, Alberta, with her husband and two children, she can often be found either writing on paper or hugging the trees that make it.
Meghan Rigali graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2003 with a BFA in interdisciplinary studies, combining classical and conceptual lineages in visual art. Work as a wilderness therapy guide with at-risk youth in Vermont radicalized Rigali’s relationship to the natural world, a shift that continues to extend into her work as an artist, educator, and steward of Nature. Her commitment to practices in yoga, eco-depth psychology, and contemporary wilderness rites enriches her work as a middle and high school teacher of visual art. Find her online at meghanrigali.com.