Also Known as the Huckleberry Lady

7 May 2019

The huckleberry lady, bough-bent and weary, walked carefully on well-used feet…a mysterious woman, who must have seen and done things well beyond our tidy experiences. She hobbled slowly up the driveway, up to the house overlooking the lake, a gypsy, perhaps, hidden under a babushka and shawl and a long peasant skirt, a woman who knew intimately fields somewhere in the world…from kneeling on them and working on them. She, no doubt, did more labor from wherever she came than we’d ever know…until, of course, she came to America for an easier life. Wherever it was, there was likely a horse-drawn wagon and harvesting potatoes and onions on her knees, picking and hoisting full burlap sacks of them onto the wagon. But in this late afternoon of my youth, she stooped under the weight of two buckets of huckleberries balanced on a crossbar over her shoulders. And during huckleberry season she showed up three times a week…a walking one-commodity market…picking berries in the morning until the buckets were full, then lugging the day’s harvest like a Sherpa around the lake, up long driveways…one blue-stained hand on a tree branch fashioned into a walking stick and the other on the crossbar, holding her cargo in place.

She’d suddenly materialize in the afternoon and knock softly on the screen door, oddly, as if she didn’t want to disturb anyone. Then, using hand gestures instead of language, she’d push a basket forward with a questioning look, instead of asking, “you want huckleberries?” And sometimes even more embarrassed, she’d come upon us already at dinner outside…a slight bow of forgiveness and a slight smile hidden mostly by the babushka. Business would have to be conducted during dinner, but it would be conducted, because summer was not summer without the berries. My aunt held up four fingers and the huckleberry lady tipped four cups of berries, enough for two pies, into a bowl set aside for her visits. Money was exchanged quietly as well, an amount agreed on during her first visit of the summer season, although always a little more given than asked…not noblesse oblige…but to make up for her discomfort at asking a fair price for herself. Then two slight bows of thank you and she was gone. In silence she came and in silence was gone…a wraith cowled like the Grim Reaper. A second later we’d look after her, but, like a figment of imagination, she was gone. But she was gone briefly. Two or three days later, the babushka would reappear. At some point, though, she did vanish like shadows into night. And that year a sentence in the book of any who remembered her…all those who knew the huckleberry lady…came to an end.

In a sense she was never gone, because all these years later, questions about her still linger…always wondering who she was and where she came from…a stranger dropped off at a lake in Pennsylvania. It is something that will have to remain a mystery, but also a pleasant memory.