I pulled in to the blueberry patch where I had picked several quarts myself last year. I had been waiting for the sign to go up announcing the arrival of the new season of U-Pick berries. Instead, I saw that they were selling flowers, $5 a flat. The information on the picking season would easily be worth the $5. The flowers would be a bonus.
As I maneuvered off the busy street onto the dirt road, cars were parked in a scatter pattern, mostly to avoid the stumps of the recently razed tree stand that once stood between the drive and the berry patch. I pulled in just to the side and just behind an older-model luxury car. An elderly woman was getting out of the car and adjusting her walker by the time I parked and began making my way toward the flower stand.
“If you’re smart, you’ll come back next week to pick blueberries,” the woman said, smiling out of her sticky red lips. The broad rim on her floppy orange hat cast a shadow over her pale, loose face.
“Oh I’m planning on it,” I said. Happy for the information that perhaps next week is the opening.
“Are you here buying flowers?” I asked her, thinking perhaps I should offer to help since the terrain wasn’t smooth, and she, there, with her walker.
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m just the grandmother or the great grandmother of this place, the owners. My son owns this place. I just came down to see the progress on the netting they are hanging.” She pointed toward the patch that was covered with sky blue netting hung on eight-foot wooden posts anchored throughout the patch.
“Is that to keep the birds out?” I asked.
“Yes. But did you know the red birds are ‘walk-ins.’ That’s what my son calls them: ‘walk-ins,'” she said, giggling. “They don’t fly in, they’ll just walk in right under the net. So they have to hang them on the side, too.”
I laughed with her as she walked her fingers in the air, miming the birds sneaking in for a blueberry snack.
“Do you see that tree over there?” she asked, pointing to a large tree standing on the south side of the field.
“That’s a cotton wood,” she said. “It’s been here since at least 1850.”
I nodded. Before I could ask her how she knew, she told me.
“You know when the black people would travel up north to escape . . . what’s that called?”
“The underground railroad?” I offered.
“Yes, the underground railroad,” she confirmed. “Well, when they were traveling this way, they were told to look for the large cotton wood tree and then they could stay in that house right there.” She pointed to a house I had never even noticed, apparently there for more than a hundred and fifty years.
“Wow,” I said, enamored by the story, thankful that this place so close to my home was on the right side of that terrible stain on our country.
She stood smiling over the knowledge, then said, “I just think it’s good to know a little history of a place.”
That was the moment I knew something bigger was happening here than humoring an old lady for a little conversation. But I started to worry about her standing there so long, dressed in her Sunday best for a Friday afternoon trip to the blueberry patch. Her tangerine blouse matched her floppy hat. The large print of her skirt pulled in the same orange as well as reds and purples. Her stockings had a long run in them. I was getting a little warm myself standing there in the sun.
“There used to be an outhouse right by that tree,” she continued. “My grandson says that’s why the tree grew so big.” We laughed together again.
“Are you going over to look at the flowers?” I asked her again, thinking I could help her over there then convince her to sit on the little padded seat positioned between the legs of her walker.
“Oh no, I’m just here to check things out for an hour or so. And I just love to talk. Oh look, here’s my son,” she said, as a man in his 60s drove up in a converted golf cart.
“They’ll let just anyone in here, huh?” he said, in a greeting meant to tease him mother. She beamed.
“I told her to come back to pick berries,” she said, indicating me.
“She told me about the ‘walk-ins’, too,” I said. Her son laughed as though this was a story she often told.
The three of us talked for a few more minutes about the best time to pick berries and the various varieties that were growing and the cost of doing business. I told them what a gift if was to have a blueberry farm right in the city limits just two miles from home. The man told me it was his son’s crazy idea. “I let him talk me into it,” I think is how he put it. Eventually, I needed to make my way toward the flowers and then home.
“It was so nice to meet you,” the lady said, as we parted ways, even though we hadn’t really met. At least we hadn’t exchanged names.
“It was nice to talk with you, too,” I told her back.
After I purchased a flat of flowers and was walking back to my car, I pass the man and the woman now sitting together in the golf cart. I was relieved.
“You have best seat in the house!” I told her as I passed by.
I wanted to confirm the things she had told me, to find them written down in a book or a newspaper article. And I might try. But the facts might say something different than the truth in this case. And the history of a place is more than just facts.
The history of a place is best told by its historians, the people who care enough to listen and to pass the stories on. I had a feeling I had just met one of those.
I want to be one of those.