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The brain on blackberries. Could be dangerous. Works for me.

A few days ago fellow Crow’s Feet writer and editor extraordinaire published a piece on what I am going to good-humoredly refer to as “alt-’membering”, or how our memories go through a very particular kind of sieve as we age. Here is her piece:

How Our Memories Serve Us
True or not, they play a role in how we see ourselves as we age.

Her piece was for me a somewhat bittersweet reminder of one reason why older folks are happier. I are one, if you will, and while I have similar memories to Nancy’s, all too many of mine are tinged with deep pain, still, like her delighted exploration of places visited in her youth, some of them retain all their goodness and sweetness.

Like blackberries.

Last night just before I went to bed, I was looking out my kitchen window onto the garden where, with the help of my sprinkler guy, we had re-positioned the sprinkler heads to revive some recently-planted ferns. The yard is burgeoning green, the feeders were utterly overwhelmed with so many species of birds for which I have no name but plenty of appreciation, the bronze gold of the setting sun was glancing off the mirrored mobile I’d picked up in Moshe, Tanzania. I gave all that to myself, not without masses of work and sacrifice.

And I was eating a bowl of big fat blackberries and cream.

I grew up a farm kid in Central Florida. Winter Haven was and still is the Land o’ Lakes, and a drive through town is a drive around lakes from one end to the other. Our plot of 25 acres sat on Deer Lake. The shoreline, such as it was, was bordered by a huge thicket of blackberries which ripened every May. Harvesting them was brutal. As kids we didn’t know better.

One in the bucket, two in the mouth, as it went. Hours in the angry sun, buzzing with wasps, the thicket tore at our shirts and skin as we loaded up.

Two treats were in store. Blackberry pie, and bowls of fresh blackberries in cold cream.

Cream. My god.

Growing up in the Sixties, my folks were poor, the house was hot. No air conditioning. Our tiny Frigidaire had little space. Mom bought Carnation dried skim milk, which was our staple. I hated it. It clumped up, tasted wretchedly wan and thin. I watched the Saturday cartoons where the ads showed other people pouring what looked like thick manna from heaven onto their cereal: cold, thick, creamy milk.

Princesses bathed in milk. Any little girl knows that if you heard fairy tales.

For the annual blackberry feed, Mom bought half-and-half. Nectar of the gods, I tell you. There was nothing but nothing but NOTHING so fine as to mash those berries, sprinkled with sugar, into the cream. The colors would range from red black to blue to purple as the berries joyfully released themselves into the thick white cream.

Nectar of the gods.

Worth every wasp sting, bug bite, torn sleeve, drop of sweat.

Rich people drank cream.

We weren’t rich, but we felt rich for three weeks when we had blackberries and cream.

When I chose Oregon, I chose to recreate certain very key parts of my youth: being surrounded by dense green, lots of rain (okay, maybe) mountains, ocean and blackberries. No really. They are an invasive species if you’re trying to garden, but Mama Nature has a great sense of humor. Here’s why:

6 Blackberry Health Benefits You Can't Ignore
Sweet yet tart blackberries are a summer staple. But the benefits of these berry beauties go well beyond their yummy…

From the article:

Eating berry fruits like blackberries may improve brain health and help prevent memory loss caused by aging, according to a review of research in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

The review concluded that antioxidants in berry fruits help fight free radicals and alter how brain neurons communicate. This may help reduce brain inflammation, which can lead to cognitive and motor issues common with aging. (author bolded)

Blackberries and similar are an aging person’s dear friend in the cognitive department. As I spooned the berries and cream-sans the sugar- into my mouth last night, I remembered a few things.

Photo by Kateryna Moskalova on Unsplash

In 1984 I was traveling New Zealand. Anyone who has seen what happens to a single wayward seed on that most friendly-to-anything-that-grows set of islands can appreciate what happens when blackberries dig in. They are astounding in their abundance. However, when corralled and grown for commercial use, or even if you happen to be fortunate enough to be hiking near them at peak ripeness, you’re in for a treat. I’ve never seen such enormous berries, fully three to four times the size or more of the wild berries of my youth, and in no need of sugar.

This part of America is as close to living in New Zealand as it gets. I fell in love with that country, but citizenship isn’t an option. The Pacific Northwest with its volcanic soils, the sweet proximity of beaches and forests (barring burning them to the ground that is), the rainy season, such as we still have it, are my New Zealand. I was determined, I made it happen, it took decades.

And here I was standing in my kitchen eating blackberries and cream. What rich people eat, my child’s brain recalled.

I am rich. Rich as Croesus, I love to say. Because I am. Not in money (especially after having to pre-pay three grand for blinds to manage the heat in the house). Rich in memories.

Like Nancy, there are some that I choose to gild. She writes:

I will admit that I have re-shaped some memories, casting them in a positive, honey-colored light. Other memories, like walking alone on the playground during recess in grade school, have been shoved to the back of my mind. I remember them but decided years ago that they did not define who I am. I chose instead to polish memories of the many kindnesses I have been shown, a thread I wanted to follow through life. (author bolded)

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

I have kept more of the ones that hurt if for no other reason than they continue to teach, and like some of the horrific memories of my youth, age, life, perspective and the development of a far more flexible brain and sense of humor have allowed me to old not only those sadness but also the millions of moments that were magical at the same time. I am comfortable with the dichotomy, for as a writer, I don’t require (nor does Nancy) that all my memories be kind ones. My greater skill as I age is to choose which of those memories define who I am, as my friend Dr. Bakari writes in her new book, to not wear life’s pain like a badge of honor.

I can choose, because I have nearly seven decades, to dip a spoon into all the women I have been in my life and use that material for my articles, just as every single one of those events has shaped how I see, feel and move in the world. That is one of the great abiding beauties of age. There are a great many of us inside “us,” our multitude of stories, lives and experiences. That is what rich looks like in practice. It is also rich to be able to choose both what and how we remember, as we call forth previous selves and turn them over and over again in the waning light of our lives.

Alt-’membering, as we age, is in part, I believe, how we choose to recall our lives as we begin to take stock of them. I am nowhere near at that point, for the bowl of blackberries for me was a moment of sweet respite before purchasing a ticket back to Kenya for this fall. It’s busy as hell, tonight I have my second aerial silks training ( a sure sign of creeping insanity but what can I say). As I listen to the happy sound of birdsong in the five o’clock dark this morning I have a long list of things to do to get ready for my trip. Trip(s). I ain’t half done. My yoga tape is on in the bedroom, I’ve got miles to run and weights to lift. Life is full.

Blackberries are a theme for me. A signpost of my growing years, a season in the hot Florida sun marked by messy cheeks covered in purple, the joy of a once-a-year treat of hot blackberry pie and ice cream. Unbelievable. So special because it was only in May. Like Christmas, celebratory.

I have slowly but surely learned to make each day, each moment, celebratory.

Like blackberries in May.

Blackberries are a super food in their own right, full of the kinds of vitamins and minerals and fiber that a body needs, particularly as we age. There isn’t a time since moving here that I didn’t have small boxes of blackberries in the fridge to be snacked on like candy, or heaped cold into a bowl and splashed with cream.

Life is like that, too.

Blackberries, if you are willing to tolerate a few bee bites, some thorns and a few ripped sleeves, are a kindness. Nature makes you work for them, but like all good things, they are worth it. Thorns, like bad memories, only need to prick a little. They don’t have to define us. The fruit of our hard work to rise above them are what make life so much sweeter.

Photo by Holden Harris on Unsplash