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Jo'Burg Days: Blackberrying

Barbara Durlacher tells of the courage of a widow who is determined, despite all disappointments, to keep her family together.

They had been picking berries all day. It had been a hot, dry summer and the bushes were heavy with fruit. The children were hot and tired, their arms cross-hatched with scratches, their mouths stained purple. But the baskets and pails were filling steadily and she knew that with the windfall apples they had collected yesterday, she could make a dozen blackberry and apple pies and sell them on her stall at the Saturday market.

“Katherine, come here, I want you,” she called to her twelve-year-old. “Gather the little ones and take them home. There’s half a loaf of bread, the new wheel of cheese and the butter I churned yesterday. Lots of fresh milk. Give them supper and put them to bed. I’m going to continue picking as long as there’s enough light. I want to fill this last pail. Then I can get the pies ready for market. Now off you go,” and with a playful smack on the bottom, she resumed, with fingers flying. Although her hands were busy, her thoughts were running ahead as she planned ways to feed her family of four. It was a hard struggle with Samuel gone.

Tired as they were, the children would be slow getting back; they would stop frequently along the way, she thought. The first stop would be at the spring for a drink of cool water, but Katherine would keep them moving and the warmth of the cottage and the simple food would soon send them off to sleep. Our Kath was a sensible little girl, only twelve, but she’d been helping out for the last two years, ever since Samuel was killed in the accident at the lumber mill. Molly knew she would wash the little ‘uns and settle them in their beds. Then, when she got home she’d riddle the ashes, add logs and get the kettle on the boil.

While the stove was hotting, she’d put on the pot of stew. It would not take too long to come to the simmer, then she’d add the potatoes and onions they’d gleaned from the edges of the farmer’s field. The vegetables would help to stretch the scrag-end of mutton. She had to use every trick she knew to feed her young family.

Lucky she’d seen the farmer driving his trap to market when she and the children were walking along the lane this morning on their way to the blackberry bushes. Gave her the opportunity to slip into the fields and search for the potatoes and onions that’d escaped the harvesters. The farmer was a hard man and would never allow his workers the leftovers. He always said “I’d rather they starved than give them something for nothing!” With his back turned, she seized every opportunity to take what she could find. From his fields in particular, mean old bugger!

Hoisting the four buckets on the homemade shoulder yoke, she started the walk home, carefully negotiating the rough ground in the faint light. After all this hard work, the last thing she wanted was to stumble and fall, dropping the berries onto the sandy ground. They would be unusable then, and her hopes of making money from her home-baked tarts would fly out of the window.

Everything went well, and after a hot meal and a rest, she made her pies. The day of the local market, and the delicious pies were temptingly arranged on her stall. It was not long before her first customer arrived, and after that sale, other people wandered over to sniff, look and buy.

A few hours later, she was carefully holding the last pie, deftly tweaking some small bits of crust to make it look more appetising when a handsome young farmer walked past. Attracted by her wholesome appearance, the lovely rosy bloom on her cheeks, the cloud of windblown black hair and her sparkling eyes, he had been trying to get close the whole morning, but kept being buttonholed by friends and acquaintances. “Get a good price for your wheat this year, John?” said one, while another shouldered his way through to ask, “Has your best milking cow calved yet, my friend?”

Returning every pleasantry with good humour and courtesy, he nevertheless managed to keep moving steadily in her direction. “Don’t want to lose this one,” he thought to himself, “She’s a pretty lass an’ all. I’d dearly like to make her acquaintance.”

Doffing his hat, he put out his hand. “John Winterbottom. I farm 20 acres near Ludlow town. Mixed farming. Sheep, a few milking cows, and barley and wheat. And, he added carelessly, “also got a few pigs and chickens, come to think of it…”

“I see you’ve had a good morning, sold nearly all your pies. But, I’ll take that last one before somebody else comes along and snaps it up. It looks a corker!” So, chatting pleasantly, he made sure she would remember him, before he courteously doffed his hat again, and shaking her hand, [Oh! The feeling of that strong, confident hand in his!] he took his leave.

Whistling cheerfully, John Winterbottom cracked the whip above the head of his chestnut mare, encouraging her to pick up her pace. Ahead, he noticed the figure burdened with bundles and baskets, dusty skirts trailing, shoulders drooping tiredly.

“Here’s my chance!” he thought, “I’ll give her a lift and let her get to know me. I hope that soon she’ll welcome me into her life.”

*

Months had passed,. The two were now inseparable and Molly was happier than she’d ever been. Then, one day, she discovered that she was pregnant. “Expect he’ll propose now,” she thought happily, “I’ll wait for the right moment before I tell him though. This is something wonderful we must share. I don’t want him to feel I’ve trapped him into marriage.”

“I really love him,” she thought, “more than I ever loved Samuel. John satisfies my yearnings for a real partner, somebody I would want to share the rest of my life with. Why doesn’t he propose? I want so much to be married again, to know the future is secure for me, the children and this new baby. But I’m so frightened to tell him about this new pregnancy, in case he rejects me. Perhaps he’s a man who does not want to be tied down with marriage and responsibilities.” What if he walked out on her, leaving her with another mouth to feed and another small child to clothe?

Should she tell him out straight, or should she delay the announcement until Mother Nature made her condition evident? Week after week she delayed, hoping that soon he would propose.

Then, a few days later, little Mary came home whining and complaining of a headache, and by the evening it was evident that she was very sick indeed. Sponging her down with cool water and trying to stop her feverish tossing, Molly knew the child had picked up the scarlet fever raging in the district. One by one the other children sickened, and day after day Molly nursed them. Moving from one child to another, she grew so exhausted she barely knew if it was night or day.

Solicitous at first, John Winterbottom’s daily visits decreased until one day, she realised she had not seen him for nearly two weeks. “Why’s he not visiting me any longer?” she whispered, What sort of secrets and lies am I living with? I thought he loved me truly, and that it was just a matter of time until he proposed. That was why I allowed him to take liberties with me, and I know our love-making meant as much to him as it did to me. Although I’ve not told him, he’s an experienced farmer, and maybe he suspects that I’m pregnant and has lost interest.”

The weeks went by and still John remained aloof, and it was not long before Mollie’s pregnancy began to show. Despite her condition, Molly was still working as hard as ever, finding new ways to support her growing family and doing everything she could to stretch the few pence she saved in the old vase on the chimney-breast. She applied for poor relief to the Parish Council, and the small weekly sums they gave her helped until the baby was born. But when the word got back to them that she was an unmarried mother, they said, “Give up the poor relief, or move to the workhouse. You children will be sent to other families. Later they will go out to work.”

*

Rather than be separated from her children, Molly kept her family together, working for a neighbouring farmer as his housekeeper. Several years later they married. She gave birth to a further two children and lived to a ripe old age, a revered and honoured member of the local community and a pillar of strength to her children.

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