I spent some of my earliest years in a tiny little lake house way out in the country. It was a small house, but that didn't matter because we had the whole outside to roam, and that's where we spent most of our time anyway. The house backed right up to the levee, with Carter Lake (sort of a glorified canal, really) just on the other side and it was surrounded by cropland as far as the eye could see. We had acres of mesquite tree-filled yard to play in, a beautiful walled-in courtyard under a terraced patio, and one teensy bathroom for four people.
We called it the Little Lake House, because it was, well, little. And also because about a mile down the road was the Big Lake House, a huge, old house (a mansion in our eyes) that had been empty and abandoned for years. Excursions to the Big Lake House were a pretty regular part of all that exploring and roaming we were always doing. There are three things I remember very vividly about the Big Lake House. I remember the sad, echoing feeling of large rooms once filled with family, laughter, friendship, but now empty and barren. I remember the glitter-glow of a gigantic, gorgeous stained glass window that seemed to take up one vast wall along a grand staircase. And I remember the mulberry trees.
The dirt road that led to the Big Lake House was lined with overgrown, wild-looking mulberry trees. They were giant and they were beautiful and I was utterly fascinated by them. Their graceful branches drooped low with dark, purplish-red fruit that burst sweet in my mouth and stained my lips and tongue. The very grass beneath the trees was purple from the crushed berries and dyed bird droppings that littered the ground around them. My mother told me that mulberry trees were used in China to grow silk worms (turns out she was absolutely right) and so I gazed at their web-covered branches and imagined myself as a Chinese princess whose little worm-friends were busy spinning silken garments to be worn at a royal ball. Where I would, no doubt, meet a handsome prince and dance in his arms.
Today, Keith and I went to a favorite picnic spot on the banks of Lake Waco and I noticed, for the first time, the towering mulberry tree growing nearby. It was covered in sweet, dark, purplish-red berries. They say smell is the sense most strongly connected to memory, but I think taste has to be right up there with it. As I stripped berries from branches and popped them in my mouth I was six years old again, listening to my mother's stories and dreaming myself a princess. Keith and I ate and giggled and stained our mouths and fingers bright purple. Even our feet were streaked with juice from the berries we trampled as we walked the fruit-strewn ground.
I felt lighter and younger, maybe even a little giddy from the vivid and lovely childhood memories that flooded me. And a little bit wistful and nostalgic as well. I had forgotten all about the mulberry trees. I'd quit noticing them, quit seeing them. I had forgotten about that little bit of magic they hold for me. But you can be sure I'm going to start looking out for them again.