Miss Charlotte's Blueberries or The Parable of the Sower

Miss Charlotte's Blueberries or The Parable of the Sower

. 8 min read

Everything, she tells me, ripens in its own season.  

Miss Charlotte is seventy-odd years old, has a shock of white curls kept in a demure bob, and comes to my shoulder. Sighted in her garden, she seems as if she’s sprung from the Georgia red clay.  

She summons us one June evening with a text: Kate, the blueberries are coming in. There are too many for me to keep up. Please, will y’all come help?

The foods that grow best here are squat, hearty plants—okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes. Brambles, really. Cotton too, of course. The soil is rust. Actual rust. The distinctive red color comes from iron in the soil oxidizing in the air. You can throw pots from it if you know how (which Miss Charlotte does). Before European colonists came to Georgia, there were no grasses, just hardpacked, exposed clay. The crops that thrive in it do the best they can, making something almost out of nothing. Which makes rabbiteye blueberries, endemic to the southeastern US, a bona fide miracle. They thrive on poverty: the soft, sour-sweet wonder of their fruit alchemized from rust and sunshine. What audacity.

In the 1940s, horticulturalist Dr. Tom Brightwell, was charged by the USDA to breed cultivars that were commercially viable. Once well-established and well-tended, blueberry orchards produce 5,000-7,000 pounds per acre. There are commercial orchards planted in 1958 that are still producing. Much like its generative namesake—the rabbit—these blueberries are known for overabundance.

If Miss Charlotte were a plant, she’d be a blueberry bush.

Please, the text reads, will y’all come help?

The children and I load into the car.

 She meets us as we pull up. Before we open the car door, she’s already shouting, “Thanks, y’all, for coming.” The humid air of a summer evening in Georgia hits us like a presence. Damp, heavy, alive with the low rays of the setting sun and the evensong of crickets and frogs, the siren-scream of cicadas. The children, one-two-three, boy-boy-girl pile out in birth order, buckets in hand. The oldest boy’s glasses fog immediately. Already sweat beads glisten on our necks and foreheads. They hug Miss Charlotte, full body hugs. I-see-you-and-I-love-you hugs, even the teenage boy and his preteen brother. Even in the humidity, even though Miss Charlotte is caked in dirt and sweat, as she always is unless she’s going to church. 

Her posture toward the world announces what she thinks of you and everything else too. Arms wide open, eyes bright: I love you.

You. You, child, are beloved. Worthy of care and attention. 

You, cat, are beloved and worthy of care and attention. 

You, blueberries, are beloved. 

And on and on. 

Because everything about her declares this, the children know.

 Deep in their bones they know—you are loved simply because you are—this will make them loving. 

 She bounds up the path, passed her many raised garden beds, passed the chicken coop, and the banana tree that never gets quite enough sun and heat to really produce anything more than green, inedible baby bananas, passed the very interesting tractor shed full of fascinating tools and more fascinating people, like Mr. Denny, her husband, who will tell you how airplanes stay up, how hydraulics work, and teach you how to change the oil on the tractor if you stand near him long enough. The boys like to stand near him. But we aren’t here for him. We’re here for Miss Charlotte and the blueberries.  We all follow her single file to the top of the hill, back of the garden. She moves fast. Faster, even, than my youngest girl who is made only of light and motion and runs ahead to catch up.

Sometimes, she just likes to be near Miss Charlotte, basking.

“Okay,” Miss Charlotte proclaims when we arrive at her orchard, “you know what to do.” 

Cultivated rabbiteye blueberry bushes can grow tall, these are heavy laden with fruit. The branches are bowing under the weight. Below them, smaller, wild Elliot’s blueberry bushes, are also jam-packed with smaller, tart berries.  

“This is how I knew where to plant the blueberries 20 years ago,” she tells us. “Because there were already so many here.” The orchard is some 50 feet by 100 feet. It feels bigger than that. More like a rainforest once you’re in there, picking. There are a few large paths, but mostly, you make your own, forging your way between walls and roofs and floors made of blueberries. The children begin filling their buckets on the perimeter. Miss Charlotte taught us how, if you roll your fingers around the fat clumps of berries just the right way, the ripe ones fall into your bucket—pop-pop-pop-pop—and the smaller still pink or green berries will stay on the branch, left alone to ripen until they are ready. 

The boy who can’t read well, the other boy who reads too well and too much and asks such questions. The girl who can’t sit still. These days, children are meant to sit still. Leave them be, she tells me. Let them ripen. You can’t pick blueberries in April.

Your children will be fine, Kate. You’re doing a good job. She says it like she knows.

 Miss Charlotte teaches us lots of things. 

“Look, kids,” she says, “my hands are dirty right now and I want a snack. I can eat the blueberries right off the branch, like this.”

 She pinches a branch that overhangs the path between two dirt-crusted fingers, inclines her headful of white corkscrew curls on a 45-degree angle and puts a large cluster of berries in her mouth. She pulls her head back, just like she showed us with her fingers, pop-pop-pop, her cheeks puff out like a chipmunk, full of sun-warmed blueberries. 

“See?” she talks with her mouth full, “Just like that.” 

The children imitate her immediately. Just like that.

When she talks to the children, she looks them in the eyes, which is, I suppose, unavoidable, because she is their height, or only a few inches off from age 8 onward. “Did you know,” she says, more berries in her mouth, “blueberries—Vaccinium ashei—are one of the best foods for you? They’re full of chemicals called anthocyanins. They prevent aging, they fight cancer. They’re anti-inflammatory. They might just be the most perfect food on the planet. Food is medicine, remember that, kids. Food is medicine. And they’re the fountain of youth. I planted all these for Mr. Denny. But his reflux is so bad now, he can’t enjoy them anymore. Too acidic. I sure am glad you’re here to help. I don’t want them to go to waste.” She pinches another branch and bites off more blueberries. 

 Once the youngest girl, Josie, confided in me, “Mama, when Miss Charlotte says things in Latin, it sounds like she’s saying a spell. I think she might be magic.”

“I think she might be too.” We whispered, like it was a secret.

 From the midst of bushes, my daughter emerges, cheeks flushed, her hair matted from sweat. Her bucket is nowhere to be found; she’s made a full commitment to grazing.

“Mama, Miss Charlotte is just so lucky to have so many blueberries right outside her door.”

Unseen, Miss Charlotte materializes from another improvised path in the orchard.

“Lucky?” she says. “Luck has nothing to do with it, darling. I planted these on purpose. These are only growing here because I cultivated them with intention. You reap what you sow. Jesus says that. Sow’s another word for planted and reap is another word for harvest. So what are you doing right now?”

Josie pushes the berries in her mouth to the side and answers, “Reaping?”

“That’s right. And we can only reap because…”

“You sowed?”

“Exactly, Josie. That’s a universal law right there: you reap what you sow.”

Josie chews and swallows and repeats: “You reap what you sow.”

 Sometimes, the children ask me impossible questions. They stream out of their mouths as quickly as they form in their minds, like summer thunderstorms. Suddenly, there, bursting forth, demanding you deal with them. When I don’t know how to answer them, and I often don’t, I say, “Let’s ask Miss Charlotte the next time we’re in the garden.” 

The open, naked curiosity unnerves me sometimes. They’re inquiring from me, their source, about the state of the world. And I don’t know, I have the same questions. I have my faith, I share it with them, but that’s mine. In time, they must find theirs. I try to answer. I try to trust that there is a process, a ripening. But these questions, they hang in the humid summer air the way smog and haze hang around Atlanta on August days. Persistent. Unyielding. Hard to breathe.

Mama, why do animals die? Mama, why is that man holding that sign made from cardboard asking for money? Why doesn’t he have a home? Why do we have war? Why did we even invent nuclear weapons?. Mama, why do bad things keep happening? Will there be any trees left when I’m a grown up? Will the whole world be paved in concrete? Is there anything we can do about any of this?

I want to assure them the future is good. There will always be good upon the earth, I believe this. Somewhere, there will always be arms-open, eyes-bright, blueberry-abundance-in-June goodness. But I also know you reap what you sow. And look what we’ve sown. Like the children, I don’t know how to hold both things at once. The despair and the love.

The wounds of the world are too deep, too big, too desperate. 

The soil is rust.

How can we heal any of this?

I want to believe, using little more than sunshine and an innate pattern, we could alchemize this world into blueberries, fruit fit to eat. But, I just don’t know—how long does it take healing to ripen?

When we’re with Miss Charlotte in the garden, picking blueberries, she tells us stories; they always start with once. Another spell she casts. 

Once when I was in art school and learning to weld.

Once when Mother taught me how to make a pie. 

Once when I gave up my son for adoption. 

Once when Jesus was in the garden.

Once upon a time.

She has a thousand different ways of saying: you reap what you sow. 

Like God speaking the ten commandments from Mount Sinai, she quotes Wendell Berry: Practice resurrection.

 An hour or an eternity has passed, it’s hard to tell in the garden. The buckets are brimful, the children worn out and quiet, just like the day. The sun has slipped below the horizon. Fireflies start flickering their morse code I-love-you-do-you-love-me? Still there are more blueberries.

“Kate,” she says to me, “you need to come bring your friends and pick. The other mothers and children. As many as you can bring. We don’t even have to be here when you come pick. I don’t want this to go to waste.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will,” I look her in the eyes and make a promise.

We troop to the car, sticky and sated on blueberries. More went in our mouths than the buckets. A good measure, pressed down, shaken, overflowing. Such abundance. So many blueberries.

“And in the late winter next year,” she says as we get in the car, “we’ll dig up some blueberry suckers for your yard too. You need some in the back. I know just where; I watched the light at your house. It’ll take a few years before they get going, but you’ll have this too.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will.” 

Before I pull out, I send a group text, “Friends, the blueberries are coming in. There are too many for us to keep up. Please, will y’all come help?”