Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Searching for the Sweet

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Nestled in a valley, not far from the Connecticut River, not wholly removed from the sounds of traffic or airplanes, dark green leaves canopy bunches of tiny, crimson gems in the fields at our community-supported farm. The leaves and fuzzy brambly stalks are scratchy against my skin. My hands pore over and under the leaves now, no longer tentative. At first, the strawberry plants, with their prickly armor, intimidated me and I was cautious pulling berries from their tendrils. Comfort isn't instant. But after a few hours in the field, I've gotten used to the plants' intricacies. I'm no longer shy of their roughness, no longer afraid to get my hands dirty or scratched. I know I won't damage the plant when I pull at the berries.
In the field, the air hovers closely: sometimes steamy and thick, so heavy it's almost opaque; sometimes both entirely palpable and like nothing on my skin. What makes the field magic is simply this: nothing separates me from the air. Plants, dirt, air. Me.

The last time I worked in a big, food-producing garden was during my adolescence, in Vermont: tucked between hills, woods, ribbon of dirt road and reservoir. From that garden I could feel the air more precisely than ever before in my life. Carefully I noted the fanning of the squash leaves, the dry husks of flowers at snow peas' tips, the majestic bean circle and stately sunflowers, the soft carrot tops and the carrots' pale orange hue. Contemplating the garden made me appreciate the very act of growth, the very fact of life. The garden taught me the beauty of letting things unfurl. I was letting myself unfold at that point, preparing leave for college in a year's time, to grow up. I was scared and eager, thrilled and sad. The garden showed me seedling to harvest to turning back to earth, the lesson of seasons and cycles.

The berries under my fingers, now, are sweeter than anywhere else on earth: small ruby bursts. When the sun beams down with full force, it warms the berries, and their juiciness mixes texture and temperature with surprising intensity. If the sun is low or the air less warm, or the berries buried beneath the ground or hidden under leaves, the berries greet the tongue in an entirely different way. Sweet has variations. The berries are small or large and, once red, are bright red of the fire engine variety, or darker of the bloodier, more sensual strain of that color, seductive. They stain my fingertips, and I want to hold the hues on my body, as reminders, badges of honor. I want only the darkest berries, the biggest ones, the ones wholly ripe and ready to fall from the stems. If I pick a large berry and discover the bottom is still whitish and imperfect by dint of being pulled too soon, I eat it on the spot, followed by a fantastic, crushingly bruised, and darkened one. I don't want to keep the unripe, don't want to care for them beyond my berth between the plants. I can't face carrying them from the field to my kitchen and feeding them to the children.

As my hands dodge and hunt for berries, my mind wanders to another search: for a baby girl to adopt. My other three children, all boys, arrived what might euphemistically be called the old-fashioned way: I got pregnant, was nauseous, had a baby...well, babies. They are my sweetest pleasures. Having decided to have a fourth in this new way, my husband and I learn that trying to find a baby--and have a birth mother find us--involves chance's wild randomness; the process isn't logical as nature is.

Last week, a couple of hours before berry picking, we heard about a baby born in Florida the day before, a biracial girl whose birth mother did not want to raise her. The birth mother, living with the father of her five year-old-son, had kept this pregnancy hidden because this girl's birth father was a different, unnamed man. Unwilling to see or hold the baby, she did not even want to know the baby's gender. At first, the situation sounded simple: come get the baby tomorrow. Take her home. No visitations, no entanglements: the birth mother wanted no contact.

On the other hand, our daughter would find very infertile soil if she wanted to dig into her biological roots. The birth mother's family had generations of bipolar disease, so there were gnarled roots beneath the surface. Now, all families have knotted roots when you start looking. Mine include depression, addiction, and generations of anorexia. Adoption transplants a child. While the choice to couple up with another person and eventually bear children is almost equally random, there's an illusion of more control in that we've chosen one another, family history be damned. Unlike nurturing a berry plant, rearing a child lasts longer than a single growing season.

Hurried before heading to the farm with our youngest child on a steamy afternoon, my husband and I decided there was too much risk--the bipolar disease, the secrecy, the birth mother's understandably angry face floating on our computer screen, despite the fact that her smiling son, the baby's brother, looked adorable--with this newborn baby.

Our family garden has three children growing in it already. At the farm, my son and his friends cavorted between the rows and knelt to eat berries. His cheeks turned rosy with berry juice and his hands were stained red. Exhausted, I sank down without regard to the plants' roughness--embracing the harshness accompanying these bright globes--and found comfort in the simplicity of place.

There are so many sweet berries in the field. The sweetness keeps coming at me, overwhelming me with abundance and sheer beauty. A baby, a baby, she will come to remind us of the sweetness in this world, what ripe, fragile, sturdy beauty exists when you allow yourself the air, the sunshine, the reverence for what nature provides, even its uncertainty and sadness.


Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a graduate of Hampshire College and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program in fiction. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as the Georgia Review, Story Quarterly, and the Southwest Review, and various parenting publications including Brain, Child, Hip Mama, and Mothering. One of her essays appears in the anthology My Heart’s First Steps. Her op-eds have appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the The Springfield Republican, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and USA Today. She lives with her husband, three sons, and one daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts. She writes the blog Standing in the Shadows.


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