Last weekend we went blackberry picking in former pasture land that has been turned into an ecological research area by Ava’s university. The area is usually closed to people not doing some kind of research in it but for two weeks or so each summer the overseers open up the trails for folks like us who want to harvest blackberries from the various patches that dot the open meadow. Picking the berries is something of an adventure as they grow on stalks full of thorns that grab at your hands and clothing as you try to get at their fruit. It can be quite painful if they get stuck in your skin. In addition, as the area is being allowed to regrow from pasture into forest and brushland, wild things abound. You have to be smart about how far into the brush you’re willing to reach to get at a berry. Last year we went in a bit too far and suffered the consequences. Pip, in particular, acquired a distinct arcing trail of chigger bites all the way across his back. This year we were more cautious about stepping off the trail and managed to stay largely free of bites. We did, however, collect our share of ticks along our pant legs and were warned off from going down one branch of the trail by the agitated huffing of what we now think was a wild boar.
Despite all of that we managed to fill a gallon sized Ziploc bag with berries after about 90 minutes of picking. Ava and Pip took the lead on this, plunging ahead along the path and grabbing most of the ripe berries within reach. Polly, dressed in a long sleeved shirt and red stretchy pants with little pandas on them, was a touch overwhelmed by the heat and hung back with me as I gleaned through whatever was left. The two of us had a nice time of things casually strolling through the meadow, Polly pointing out dark, plump clusters for me to pick, and the both of us stopping to examine anything interesting that caught our eye.
It was particularly nice because as Ava and Pip rounded the bend and eased out of sight, Polly and I had some one on one time together. Moving by ourselves we found numerous June bugs, a brown, leaf-eating insect tucked under a briar, and a silvery green grasshopper that was smaller than a peanut. We listened to cows mooing and a donkey braying in a field across the way. We watched as red-winged blackbirds swooped low across the head-tall growth around us and finches rode back and forth on the stalks of purple flowered thistle. Polly was particularly intrigued by the numerous strands of Queen Anne’s Lace that lined the path and we found opportunities to compare its various stages of growth from fibrous stalk to hairy bud to delicate bouquet of croqueted white flowers.
For half an hour or so, it was just the two of us together, and she was perfectly content going along with me. Her normal impulse is to stay close to Pip so as to make sure she doesn’t miss out on anything he might be doing. However, for that time, being with me was interesting enough or attractive enough to override that impulse, a fact that gave me an endless feeling of joy. At one level it’s always nice to feel engaged with someone in a process of mutually exchanged attentions. This is especially true when it comes to parents and children as I usually find myself being either the giver or demander of attention. It is the rare time that my kids and I come to a truly collaborative moment that hasn’t been engineered by Ava or me for some larger purpose. At another level, I’m always a slight bit unsure about what to expect from Polly in those kind of moments. With Pip, I’m his best friend. We talk. We play. We work together. He always wants me to do something with him. With Polly, there’s a touch of distance. I’m much more conscious of being her parent than I am with Pip. I’m always aware that she has a lifeworld that is distinctly separate from mine. She doesn’t automatically jump at the opportunity to go run errands with me or play in the yard together. She enjoys playing with me but sometimes she’d rather do something else with Ava or play on her own. This feeling of separation doesn’t create problems between us, but it does make me feel as if I have to earn things a bit more with her. I tend to coax her more when it comes to things like learning how to read or figuring out how to ride a bicycle. I’m less certain about what games she might and might not enjoy. I’ve let her do things like climb up a ladder with me that I would not have done for Pip. In this way we probably re-enact a fairly typical father-daughter relationship.
And so, to get a half-hour with Polly and to get it right, to not be overbearing or too eager, to find our rhythm together, make me feel like our time in the berry field was time well spent. Polly and I didn’t leave that field with many berries in our bucket but that’s not really why we were out there anyway. Picking berries, going on vacations, playing in the park, these are things we do in order to spend real, decent time with our kids. It doesn’t always come together in the way that we want, but happily on this trip it did.