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When blackberries ripen

BY GEORGIA GREEN STAMPER


GEORGIA GREEN STAMPER grew up on a tobacco farm in Owen County. Her third book of essays, "Small Acreages," is now available.

It's June in my slice of Kentucky, and the wild blackberry bushes that grow like weeds–untended and uninvited–are strutting, heavy with ripe, juicy berries. To pick them, however, you must wade into the thick briar patches where they grow. When I think of the briar patches, especially this time of year, I remember Johnny and the fire and Miz Zell.

In Small Acreages, I wrote about the fire that destroyed our farmhouse the spring I turned 4. But it marks the dramatic beginning of most of my childhood memories, and I return to it again and again as though studying an ancient map of my journey to and through adulthood.

My parents were awakened in the middle of the night by an explosion, and within five minutes, the whole house was blazing. We ran outside in our night clothes without taking time to dress or put on shoes. As Daddy raced to the cistern to fetch futile buckets of water, Mother, realizing we needed our neighbors' help quickly, darted back into the house to grab the car keys. In the chaos and darkness, I stood frightened and bewildered where I'd been carried and set down. Then, unbeknownst to Mother, I decided to run after her when I saw her disappear into the house. In one of those unexplained miracles of chance, my father–by the cistern on the far side of the yard–spotted me. He raced to sweep me up in his arms the very moment before I stepped inside the smoke-filled, burning building.

I was the only thing Daddy was able to save that night other than my toy box snatched from the front porch. There wasn't much in it of note other than my beloved Johnny. He was my baby doll with soft, rubbery skin that looked like my own pink flesh, and his blue, glass eyes opened and shut like a real baby's. I loved him very much and even more after that night. In my childish way, I understood that Johnny and I were both lucky to have escaped from the fire, and he became my constant companion in the displaced days that followed.

Until a new house could be built, my family rented a recently vacated cottage from Miz Zell True a few miles from our farm. Indeed, it set across the road from the True home, and Miz Zell did all she could to pull us through that difficult summer. She showed up every day with small gifts of food and encouraging stories. Miz Zell would be my first-grade teacher a few years later, nurturing all her students with her can-do spirit and inspiring tales of people who overcame odds. Like the teased and taunted Christopher Columbus who sailed west to reach the east and ended up bumping into America–oh, she loved that story. Or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego whom God rescued from Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace–that was my favorite. But the summer I was four, she simply helped us, reminded us, to keep on keeping on. And so, in late June, Miz Zell suggested we plan "a fun outing" for me to pick blackberries on our farm.

The next morning, the four of us headed out, Mother, Miz Zell, Johnny, and me. Miz Zell wore a sunbonnet over her silvery halo of hair, and Mother dressed me in long pants and sturdy shoes (blackberry bushes have thorns, you know, and grass chiggers hide on their leaves). Off we went with empty water buckets to fill with berries. The dew had not yet lifted when we began, and I still remember my excitement as we waded into the briar patch, stepping carefully from one rock or bare spot to the other. But two hours later, I was exhausted, overheated, and sobbing. Johnny had gotten lost somewhere in the brambles.

We searched and searched, re-tracing our steps. Finally, weary and hot, we left the farm without Johnny. Miz Zell comforted me. The menfolk would find him that evening when they rounded up the milk cows, she said. And he was made of sturdy stuff and could withstand being outside for a day or so. "Remember"–and then she told me every don't-give-up story in her repertoire.

But Johnny wasn't found that evening or the next or even the next. With everything to replace, money was tight for my family that year, and I don't recall getting a new doll until Santa brought one at Christmas. By then, I understood that Johnny was lost forever.

Two years passed. One winter day, Daddy came in from searching for lambing ewes and said, "Guess what I found?"

He held out a gray lump that looked like a dead animal or maybe a Biblical leper shedding decayed skin. Its sunken eyes stared at me from an ashen face. Terrified, I backed away from its haunting gaze and hid behind my mother.

But Daddy had found Johnny.

Rescued a second time, Johnny had been given yet another chance. And so had I, his careless keeper. Mother gently washed him, and embarrassed of my initial fear, I reached out to cradle him. In the years that followed, he held an honored place within my growing doll collection. Whenever a visiting playmate questioned his less-than-perfect appearance, I told his story. Johnny became a legend.

Miz Zell died when I was 11. My dolls, including Johnny, were packed away when childhood faded into adolescence. Still, when blackberries ripen in Owen County, I think about them both. I ponder the unexplained miracles of chance I've experienced, as well as the many chances I have been given to self-correct in my long life. I remember the sweet taste of summer's wild blackberries–and the plant's persistence to survive, to flourish, in a briar patch.

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