Life Lessons from My Carefree Childhood Summers and a Blackberry Tree

I was a child of the 70s, raised in a small, displaced community on the fringes of Cape Town. If walls could talk, they’d tell of a childhood shaped in a two-bedroom cottage I shared with my parents, two older brothers, and two sisters.

Our little house was squeezed into a cul-de-sac, or plainly the circle, if you will. Fourteen other families of all shapes and sizes made up our mini-community where everyone knew each other by name. The circle moms became friends who shared each other’s burdens as well as their meagre supplies.

In the afternoons after school, we’d quickly shed our stuffy school uniforms and shoes, grab a sandwich, and head outdoors. In between running errands for the neighbourhood ‘aunties’, we wiled away carefree hours playing hopscotch or hide-and-seek and endless childhood games.

In summer, we roamed the hills on the outskirts of town, picking wild figs and collecting pinecones falling from the spiky pines. We gathered sticky gum from the cracked barks in the sweet thorn trees before returning home with our bounty of nature’s best treats.

On scorching summer days, we strolled in groups to the nearby beaches to cool off in the tidal pools and collect black mussels on the rocky shores. My mom stuffed the fresh mussels through an old hand-cranked meat mincer with soaked bread, onions, parsley, and salt, turning the humble shellfish into a mouthwatering meal.

The Blackberry Tree

PHOTO: PIXABAY

Soon after we moved into the circle, our elderly neighbour, Mr Daniels gifted mom a young blackberry tree which she planted along the walkway leading to the front door. That young tree seemed to grow as tall as the neighbourhood children with each passing year. Eventually, it outgrew us all when the branches reached so high, that they towered over the pathway.

In summer, the tree showed off a harvest of juicy berries that the flow of visitors stopping by enjoyed picking on their way in and out. The fruit left on the tree eventually fell to the ground staining the path with nasty purple blotches. You couldn’t overlook the splashes and berries that stuck to your shoes as you walked up to the door. Eventually, the rain would come and wash away the stains, until the following summer when it happened all over again.

A lifetime of summers and winters, celebrations, weddings, and funerals unfolded in the shadow of that blackberry tree. We moved in when I was aged 5. Twenty years later I was the last child to walk down that pathway in my wedding gown on my way to start a new life away from that beloved old tree.

When mom was the only one left in our cottage in the circle, she cut down that blackberry tree. She’d finally had enough of those ugly purple splashes staining the pathway and spoiling her floors. Though the walkway stayed cleaner the garden was never quite the same without that big old blackberry tree.

The ugly berry stains on the cement path were a lot like my life back then- carefree childhood summers tainted by the harsh realities of life in a complex world. For me, those realities included contending with a fractured, distorted identity flowing from my socio-political context.

The Face of Grief

My high school yearbook described me as a teen with a ‘friendly smile’. What my peers didn’t notice behind my cheery grin was a soul silently wrestling with grief, loss, and a broken identity.

My father, my beloved broken hero, lost his life to chronic illness when I was 15. It happened in an instant, but the impact of such a tragic loss left a void that would last a lifetime. As I clumsily grappled my way through adolescence and grief there was another loss unfolding inside me that was deeper than my young mind could fully understand at the time.

The Broken Circle

Like the stains of the blackberry tree, my carefree childhood memories were weaved between the darker realities of racial displacement. Among the many social ills that came from SA’s troubled social history, two confusing beliefs seeped into my identity – that I wasn’t good enough and, at other times, I was too much.

I left with my husband to start a new life beyond the confines of our childhood contexts but soon realised that wherever you go in this world there are voices grappling to impose an identity on you. And, that the voices you listen to will set you on a course for your future.

Five years ago I was on the brink of midlife, and had lived half my life, yet still wondering, do I belong anywhere? Is there a place for me in this world where I can feel free to become everything God intended for me, I wondered. If the past is the measure to gauge the future, what do I have to look forward to in midlife? Was midlife the beginning of the end, or the start of something new and unexpected, and where do I go from here?

Grappling my way through these questions took time and intentionally rumbling with my stories for deeper insight and answers.  I found what I was searching for and so much more as I transitioned through one of the most significant life seasons that transformed my life, relationships and future. You can read more about my story of personal renewal in midlife here.

Two favourite pastimes that emerged early in my teens proved to be pivotal tools to help me find my way through the midlife transition.

A Sacred, Secret Place

In my teens, when it was hard to find privacy and expressing intense emotions was challenging, I turned to two favourite pastimes—reading and journaling. Reading was an escape into other cultures, people, and places so unlike my own, while journaling offered a welcome outlet and sacred space to vent my silent pain.

But before I reaped the benefits of reading and how it would unveil the mysteries of the bigger world beyond my fishbowl community, I needed to learn to read.

The same Mr Daniels, our kindly neighbour who gifted us the young blackberry tree that mom planted and nurtured to grow in majestic stature to produce its juicy favourite berries for all to enjoy, also had a daughter. Ms Daniels also shared something with the world much more precious than a single tree – the gift of teaching. Ms Daniels happened to be my first-grade teacher.

Letter to a Teacher

A while ago as part of developing my writing voice, I entered a public writing challenge contest. The brief was to write a letter to a teacher that impacted our life. I chose to write a letter to Ms Daniels telling her how she impacted my life. It read something like this:

Dear Ms Daniels,

It’s been a while since our paths crossed for a fleeting season. I was the timid, 6-year-old first-grader with a mop of honey curls and a protective scowl on my face, trying to make sense of a confusing world.  You were the gentle, sweetly fragranced young teacher with a cheerful smile. You patiently taught me to sound out the ABCs and string letters into words until those words transformed into magical stories. 

I remembered you the other day when someone asked: “What was your dream job when you were a kid?” At that moment, from out of nowhere, a dusty forgotten dream gently floated in. Dating back decades ago, before too many seasons of life, grief, and loss cast dark shadows on the purest parts of my childhood.

“I wanted to be a teacher!” I replied.

In a floodgate of memories, I recalled how my best friend and I spent blissful hours after school in her backyard teaching our learners the same way you did, with compassion and kindness. Except, our blackboard was the wall of her red brick house and neatly stacked rocks were our first-graders.

My memory is fuzzy about the details, but Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


Ms Daniels, you entered my life a year after my family joined the scores of families who were forcefully moved to a displaced community due to racial segregation in South Africa. In a world where I felt afraid and invisible, you made me feel seen.

Today, reading and writing fill the better part of my days, and it all began in a grade 1 classroom, decades ago, with you, Ms Daniels. 

I didn’t win the writing contest and that was never the point. But the sentiment shared in that letter was from the heart as is every word that flows from my pen onto these pages. Perhaps she’ll find it someday, or may not and I’ll simply pay forward what started with someone following their passion.

Reading developed into an unquenching thirst for knowledge and learning as a way to understand humanity, while journaling evolved into a full-fledged passion for creative, non-fiction writing and psychoeducational storytelling focused on personal growth and purposeful living.

The results of these pastimes are what you’re reading today. You can also find psycho-educational tools under the Resources page to encourage intentional, conscious self-growth in others. These are all geared to encourage others seeking deeper meaning and purpose in life, to approach their lives, dreams, challenges, and opportunities with openness and curiosity to uncover the best life you can live in this new season of becoming.

Conclusion

That beautiful blackberry tree was such a staple structure in my youth. I often climbed the branches as far up as I could. There, hidden among the berries and leaves I felt safe and content. I’d peer through the branches to catch a glimpse of the world over the rooftops wondering what lies beyond my childhood. I could never have imagined that blackberry tree would become a part of my life story in this way. But that’s the beauty of imagination and creative flow.

Making sense of our lives seems to unfold in the rearview mirror. It’s only in looking back and searching for meaning in our experiences and influences that shaped our becoming that seemingly unconnected, simple things like the stains of a blackberry tree sometimes help us connect the dots in the mystery of our life stories.

Dear Midlifers, I encourage you to take the time to revisit your favourite childhood memories and see what deeper insights may surface that helped you grow and are still helping you today to thrive on purpose in midlife!

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