Mulberry Picking

We found a mulberry tree in our backyard last spring. It actually stands in the neighbor’s yard, but some of its leafy branches extend over the fence and onto our side. We Googled, “Can you eat mulberries,” expecting the answer to be a clear “no.” After all, when you have a tree dripping with ripe, black berries, you expect there to be a catch. However, mulberries are indeed edible.

Since then we’ve grown to love mulberries. Even my littlest son heads for the back corner chanting his word for “mulberry” to pluck the berries off the tree. He swallows them stem and all and spits out a fair number of green ones. But the picking clearly delights him; he protests loudly if we try to pull him away from his beloved tree.

There is nothing like berries to teach a child patience. From watching berries slowly grow and ripen, I see my urgent nature, the one that wants to give my kids what they want now. But in this case, I can’t. So I tell them, “I know; the green ones aren’t good. It will be a few more weeks.” And later I say, “Don’t pick the red ones—the ones that are barely ripe. It’s better to wait.”

Mulberries aren’t perfect. Though the picking is easy, the stems are hard to pull from the berry. Eating the stems is like swallowing an inch worm, so I have to bite off each stem before we can eat the berries. And mulberries taste better when they are not quite ripe; when they are totally black, they become squishy and overly sweet.

We frequently meander to the back corner of our yard during mulberry season. After the rain, the berries hang with little pink crystal drops suspended on their tips, making their own mulberry juice. In the hot part of the day, it’s like putting liquid sunshine into your mouth, warm and syrupy sweet. We swat at mosquitos and hunt under the branches.

At first, there are just a few really good ones. But over time, the black ones surpass the red ones.

I pick the berries, not quite fast enough for an eager toddler and reaching little boy. One child says, “Another mulberry, Mama!” while the other holds up his hand and squeals, anxious that I’m giving a berry to his brother instead of to him. I bite off the stems and pass them to each child as quickly as I can. Eventually I get ahead of them, and in my hand is a cluster of berries.

I try to give my toddler my spoils, though I’m having to work to get his attention. “Look! Look! Baby! Baby!” He’s clearly not asking, suddenly absorbed in finding his own. I finally open my hand right in front of him, and he greedily tries to take all the berries though he has no reason to doubt there will always be enough. Some spill into our swampy yard. I pick more, and no one asks for them. I feel so relieved that I’m ahead of the game.

That’s when I realize: “I haven’t tasted one. Not even one.”

Why? This wasn’t like the beginning of the year when there were just a few and I gladly gave the two ripe ones we found to my children (who still insisted on sampling the red and green ones just to see). I was happy to let them have spring’s first berries

But now there are enough. And I’m still holding myself back, focused on picking for a baby who is quite happily picking his own. Am I paying enough attention to see that there are enough for me? And if I don’t sample the sweetness, how do I know that the best berries are the ones right in between dark red and black? How can I really give my children the best ones if I don’t taste them too? 

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