June 1, 2016

More strawberries


For what seemed like a long time after my mother’s death—although it was really only a couple of months—it felt to me like she had just vanished. I would come into my parents’ house to get something for my father or to water the plants, and I’d come around the corner from the hallway into the family room, where she so often sat to do her handwork, or clip recipes, or watch sports on television, still expecting to see her sitting there. I knew she wouldn’t be sitting there, but for weeks and weeks I couldn’t shake the feeling that she should be sitting there. But she wasn’t. It was as if she had vanished.

One morning she’s here, and I’m helping her put away boxes of Christmas decorations on March the 3rd (and that was typical of her—stretching out Christmas as long as possible, and then some . . . ), and by that evening, she’s gone.

Then one day I was in back of my parents’ house in their garden picking some strawberries in the evening at dusk, and I crossed over to something else. Something shifted. I think it was in the picking of the berries. My mother loved strawberries. If you put everything else in the world in front of her along with a bowl of fresh strawberries, she would have chosen the berries.

So I was there picking berries and thinking about how much she loved them, and the sun was going down, and the mosquitoes were starting to get me, and I hurried along, picking as many of the small red berries as I could find in the far bed. But then something in the near bed caught my eye, a glint of red in the fading light. I lifted a leaf and there was the biggest berry, and then as I searched, another and another. Huge berries—as big as any you can find in the store, the sort that are shipped from far, far away. But there they were right in front of me.

And I realized there in my mother’s strawberry patch was the exact opposite of what I had been feeling. Instead of her vanishing, there was something of her appearing. It was unexpected and yet so entirely predictable. Of course, there would be more strawberries, more than I expected, more than I could see at first.

I picked until I couldn’t see at all anymore, and I realized as the sunlight disappeared that there were still more to be harvested. I would have to come back the next day. It seemed to be an affirmation that my mother didn’t vanish—that there are glints of her life and the plantings of her life all over the place.

Some of those things are in me; some are in you; some are in the garden behind her house; some are in the values and beliefs and expressions of her life embodied in the church; some are in the heritage of family—those who have passed before us, those who are yet to be born, and all of us who are alive today; some have been seen and heard and spoken of and will even be tasted here today. And all of those things are as red and ripe as those berries behind her house.

My perspective on life has changed significantly since my mother died. Some things matter more. Some things suddenly matter less. Fewer things seem in my control. There is less that is predictable. But I’m realizing finally that I am still harvesting the fruit of my mother’s life. And I do it gratefully because I know that even that doesn’t last. Everything has its season. But for now, the berries are accessible and they are abundant.

Kurt Borgmann is pastor of Manchester Church of the Brethren, North Manchester, Ind. This is excerpted with permission from his book, The Heart of Grief (2015), which is available through Brethren Press.