Picking chokecherries

October 25, 2008

When my cousin’s wife asked me if I’d like to come out to the ranch to pick chokecherries, I thought it was a great idea.  It suited perfectly my goal to connect with my ranching roots.  I thought it would be a wonderful activity to share with my two-year-old. 

I envisioned myself standing by tall bushes covered in sweet berries, the freshly cut hay fields in the background, an antique basket over my arm that my grandmother had used to fill with chokecherries. 

Or better yet, my great grandmother!  And my adorable toddler diligently pulling berries from the lower branches.

Okay, so there actually were fresh cut hay fields in the background…

We got off to a late start.  My cousins had been delayed for some reason having to do with cattle.  By the time we got around to picking chokecherries it was nearly noon, and hot as blue blazes. 

Upon arrival at the bushes, my cousin’s wife handed me an empty ice cream bucket.  What happened to my great, great grandmother’s antique basket? 

Then it occurred to me that obviously a basket that old is incredibly fragile.  Better to use something more practical.  I looped the red plastic handle over my arm and reached for my toddler’s hand, which was not there.

My cousin’s wife had invited her sister-in-law, who brought along her 18-month-old son.  The two boys were in the car battling over control of the steering wheel. 

My son had the size advantage, but the other boy has an older brother, and was completely unfazed by being poked in the eye. I collected my uncooperative child and lugged him through the tall grass to the bushes by the creek.

The grass was so tall that my son was completely lost the moment I put him down.  Still enthusiastic, I hoisted him up on a cooler so he could reach the branches. 

He immediately popped a berry in his mouth, grimaced, and spit chokecherry juice in my hair.  I was surprised by his reaction.  The chokecherry syrup and jam I’d enjoyed all my life was so sweet. 

I selected a particularly juicy looking berry and popped it in my mouth with an encouraging smile.  My son raised his eyebrows sardonically.  What?  Fresh chokecherries taste terrible! 

In my shock I spit out the juice into my hair.  And chokecherries have pits in the middle!  I pried my son’s mouth open and felt around.  Apparently the seed is the only thing he actually swallowed.

My son lasted a grand total of 35 seconds before he was hot and irritated and ready to get back behind the steering wheel. 

Determined to experience chokecherry picking as my ancestors did, I pulled as many berries as I could into my bucket, branches and all.  I was impressed by how quickly I was able to fill it. 

When the pickers gathered, I was surprised to see that the other women did not have any leaves or branches in their buckets.  I giggled awkwardly and slid behind a hay bale to pull my berries from their stems. 

Once the branches were removed, I was left with a smattering of berries at the bottom of an otherwise empty bucket. 

As we drove back through the hay fields, my cousin’s wife politely asked if I’d like to join her later in the week to turn our berries into syrup.  Weeks later I have yet to hear from her.  Maybe she’ll give me a bottle of syrup for Christmas, in a cute little basket that once belonged to my great, great, great grandmother.

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus October 25, 2008.