“Daddy, there’s a ripe one over here.”
“Ooohh, there’s a bunch of ripe ones over here.”
“I can only pick one place at a time.”
“You want to pick raspberries, you’re gonna run into spiders, Bright Eyes.”
Seven years ago, when my daughter turned one year old, my family and I had to move out of our apartment in the NW suburbs of Chicago and out to the Illinois River Valley area. When we first bought our house out here in the sticks, my mother gave me one small raspberry cane as a housewarming gift. I planted it in a convenient corner of our yard, right next to the garage, and that first Fall it gave us a glorious harvest of about 11 berries. Fast forward to today: that one cane is now a massive thicket fully 10ft by 10ft that threatens to take over our yard, my daughter is now a talkative, helpful 3rd grader, and today we picked raspberries. Correction, I picked raspberries and she played lookout.
A little info on red raspberries. There are two ways to grow them; either cut the canes back in November or so, or leave them be. If you cut the canes you get one big harvest in late August or early September. If you leave them, which I prefer to do, the old growth flowers early and you get two harvests, one in late June and another at the beginning of Fall. The downside to leaving the canes uncut is that raspberries spread. Every year my thicket gains about a foot outward and gets lusher in the center. Raspberries will grow in shade but prefer sun and will harvest sooner that way, and give the best berries if given plenty of water. That being said, mine are mostly in the shade and the only water I give them is when I dump out my dehumidifier, and I still get more berries than I know what to do with. Basically, they are a bountiful weed that thrives on neglect, perfect for a lazy bum like me.
Speaking of lazy bum, that’s really the main reason I don’t cut the canes back. Come November, once the first good frost hits, those things put the rasp in raspberry. They are coated in tiny thorns as sharp as any rose’s, but during the summer the canes are flexible so they’re not that bad. In Fall they are downright vicious. Also, I never remember to pick the bloody berries, so having two harvest gives me more chances to actually do it.
Today, I had no excuse. My daughter and her big brother were outside playing before dinner on a glorious, sunny-and-70 September Sunday when suddenly she comes in and interrupts me in the middle of making the mashed potatoes.
“Daddy, there are TONS of raspberries outside! Can we go pick them?”
“After dinner, sure.”
“We’re gonna need a big bowl, can you get me one?”
I pull a mixing bowl out of a cabinet and hand it to her. She skips off to leave it by the front door, and I am struck by how little it really takes to make a kid happy: a plan, some direct attention, some one-on-one time, and some novelty.
After dinner we tromp through the leaves from the ash trees in our yard to the raspberry thicket. As described, it is positively drooping with berries, more than a few past ripeness. They’re not very big, no larger than the tip of my pinkie at best, no surprise with the dry, cool summer we had, but I pop one in my mouth instead of the bowl and the taste blows me away. I can never get over how much more flavor home-grown produce has compared to the plastic crap that passes for food at the grocery store. Even the stuff from the local orchard and produce place in the next town can’t compare.
I carefully thread my feet as deep into the thicket as I can get, while my daughter stands behind me with the bowl, unnecessarily pointing out berries and squealing at every strand of spiderweb. Spiders love the thickets, especially the big, yellow-and-black garden spiders, which I do NOT point out to her; her horror of arachnids almost rivals her mother’s. The sun shines low and golden through the leaves, warm but definitely not summery anymore. Autumn is here, even though we are ten days to the equinox, and while there may be a few more warm days left, they will be few and short-lived.
The bowl fills quickly, every cane contributing a handful. Soon my fingers are stained red and my palms and wrists itch from the thorns. The fall harvest is always more pleasant than the summer; far fewer mosquitoes to add to the itchiness. I step out and then back into another gap, reaching and stretching for the canes closest to the garage. The cool north breeze blows my hair in my eyes, annoying but a pleasant counter to the sun. The sky is that perfect, crystalline blue you never see in the summer, a few soft, white clouds setting off the color perfectly, the ones closer to the western horizon just starting to shift over to gold.
“Daddy, I’m cold.”
I turn back and look at her. Ever the warm weather child, she is dressed in a light summer dress despite the cooler day. She’s grown at least 2 inches over the summer, and is looking less and less like a little girl all the time. The first signs of coltish adolescence is starting to show in the length of her legs, the fine bones of her shoulders and throat. She will be tall, and with her fair skin, her sharp, elfin features, and those huge gray-blue eyes, I know she will be beautiful. She has a very direct stare when talking, and I can already imagine the boys stumble-stuttering under her gaze.
“Do you want to go inside?”
“Okay, go jump in the shower, there’s school tomorrow. I’ll finish up.”
“Okay, Daddy. Can I have ice cream?”
“Shower first. Scoot.”
“Fine.” She starts off and then turns back. “I love you, Daddy.”
I have to smile at that. “I love you too, Bright Eyes.”
She skips off through the lengthening shadows, and I turn to finish picking the raspberries.