Picking serviceberries off the bike path in Minnehaha park, I'm watching a family of five returning to their van. Mom is very beautiful in a conventional, central-city sort of way, the children also but putting up a stink now, as children often do after a day in the park; whether still wired or exhausted, the mood descends. Mom and Dad use a countdown method, as in, "Get in the van or I'm going to have to put you in it. One, two..." The kids respond by climbing in, slouching, dramatic, as if they've been undone. Mom climbs into the passenger seat, tired. Dad walks over and asks what I'm picking.
"What was that?"
"I've never heard of them. Are they good?"
"I think these taste like a cross between a blueberry, a grape and a plumb. Try one."
He does so, tentatively, though my hands are stained with berry juice, I'm holding the half-pint I've already collected, and I probably have berry juice on my face. At least he didn't ask, as some do, "Are those poisonous?" He puts the berry in his mouth and his face lights up.
"Wow, these are good!" He starts picking berries, placing them in his cupped left hand. "I need to get some of these for my kids."
"The last kids who came by didn't want to leave," I say. His kids are already in the van; they're scrutinizing dad closely, they can see the berries. I'm about to suggest he let his kids pick, then I remember how difficult it was to get them in the van. I say instead, "You have very beautiful children."
He looks at me surprised, happily so. "Thank you, " he says, genuinely. He looks at the van, waves, turns back smiling and says, "They are beautiful kids." He continues picking, and asks how I know about serviceberries. I tell him their story, that they were a fairly common native plant before mono-crop corn production, the growth of suburbia, too many deer and the plague that is buckthorn. That they survive in a few plantings like these, in parks, parking lots, and yards. That I know where many different kinds of berries grow, that wild currants will be ready when the serviceberries are done, that there's always something ripe from April to October, if you know where to look. I tell him about my yard, the wild strawberries on the boulevard, the raspberry patch, the black caps the birds were kind enough to plant for me growing along the fence by the pond. He says his mom had a big garden, the whole yard was a garden actually, but "that isn't something a sixteen year-old appreciates."
"I bet your kids would appreciate a garden, with berries."
"Maybe," he says absently, continuing with his line of thought, his mom somehow present for him, "You know what they say, you never really appreciate your parents until you have kids."
"Nothing easy about bein' a dad, is there?"
"No, it's not easy."
"A thankless job, really. Sometimes."
"Yeah," he says. He looks again to the van, turns back smiling. "But I like it. I've got to get these to my kids."
"Just so you know, there are more serviceberries up the path. A shrub variety, sweeter berries I think, but not so easy for the kids to pick."
Maybe he's remembering his mama's garden. He says, "Kids like picking berries, don't they."
"Makes you wonder why we don't line all the pathways."
His kids are calling for him. The eldest daughter, about nine years old, is hanging out the open driver window. The two younger boys, seven and five, have opened the driver-side passenger door, though they know they aren't supposed to and don't make a move to climb out, only positioning themselves to beat their older sister to the first berry. Mom is patient and amused. Dad has gathered enough berries for them all to sample. It's almost twilight. Having tasted them, the kids are bouncing up and down wanting to be let out. Dad looks at mom, mom looks at dad, mom says ok and the kids can't get out of the van fast enough.