Aunt Dodie—Dorothy Mae Collins to those outside our extended family—was an original. God broke the mold after making her, and that’s for certain.
For her entire adult life, Aunt Dodie had lived in the central Idaho mountains in a cabin overlooking Payette Lake. She never married, never had kids of her own. But there wasn’t a one of us—in any Collins generation—who didn’t know where to turn when we needed help or advice or a bit of loving concern.
I suppose if she’d been born a Southerner, they’d have called Aunt Dodie a “steel magnolia,” for she was as strong as she was beautiful. However, we don’t have a comparable description in our Idaho vernacular—unless you count “tough old bird.” And that doesn’t sound right for Aunt Dodie.
I was thirty-two the year I experienced my greatest need for a dose of Aunt Dodie’s wisdom. I’d broken up with Barry, my fiancé of three years, after catching him in a, shall we say, questionable situation with my best friend. So much for being a keen judge of character, male or female.
Then the firm I’d worked for longer than I cared to admit—in a rather boring position to boot—decided to close their Boise office and relocate to Spokane, Washington. I had no desire to go with them, not for the salary I earned. Of course, they didn’t offer me a transfer either, so that was a moot point.
The final blow came when I learned the apartment complex where I lived was to be torn down to make room for a grocery superstore.
Life was the pits—and it had nothing to do with cherries.
Aunt Dodie to the rescue.
“You come stay with me for the rest of the summer, hon. We’ll have us a good time while you wait to see what it is the Lord has in store for you.”
That was another thing about Aunt Dodie. Nobody had more faith than she did. She looked for God—and found Him—in everything around her. Maybe that’s because she was a painter and sculptor and had a special way of seeing the world with those artist’s eyes of hers. But I believe it’s because she looked at everything through the Artist’s eyes rather than through her own.
It was a clear, hot, August afternoon when I drove my fifteen-year-old Ford up the dusty, bumpy driveway to Aunt Dodie’s home. She must have been watching for me. The door opened and out she came onto the deck, her face wreathed in a smile of welcome.
Aunt Dodie was in her late seventies, thin as a model, with hair as black as pitch. “Thanks to Lady Clairol,” she would announce to anyone who commented on her lack of gray. She didn’t make excuses. You always knew where you stood with Aunt Dodie.
That’s what I desperately needed right then—to know where I stood. Not with Aunt Dodie. With my Creator. It sure seemed to me that I’d been sent to the woodshed without being told the reason why. Worse, I felt abandoned, rejected, alone.
That evening, while we sat at the table, eating a supper of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy and fresh cut green beans, Aunt Dodie let me pour out my confusion and heartache and anger. She listened attentively while I whined and railed. I complained about Barry. I complained about my former boss. I complained about the superstore mentality that had swept across America, wiping out all the little guys in the name of big bucks and big business. And finally, long after the food on the table had grown cold, I complained about God.
“What did I do wrong to deserve all this, Aunt Dodie? Why is everything going wrong? I’ve prayed and asked, but He doesn’t answer me.”
“Doesn’t He?” She lifted one of her finely arched eyebrows. “Perhaps you simply aren’t listening.”
Ah, something new to complain about. Now I could complain about Aunt Dodie!
“God never promised us a rose garden, hon.”
I sank into a mire of my own self-pity.
Aunt Dodie rose from her chair and began to clear the table. “We’ll go huckleberry picking tomorrow. About six.”
“In the morning?”
She laughed, and that was answer enough. I groaned.
“My dear,” she said, leaning toward me, “you might be surprised at the many ways God can speak to you in a huckleberry patch.”
The forest was hushed, almost reverent, at six in the morning. A light breeze whispered through the tops of the lodgepole and ponderosa pines. Dew sparkled on the underbrush. Dried leaves and needles crunched underfoot, and the air smelled of rich soil and wood smoke.
I followed Aunt Dodie up the trail, climbing ever higher on the mountainside. Her stride was surprisingly long and sure for a woman her age. I, on the other hand, had a hard time keeping up while carrying two large plastic buckets, one in each hand. I was panting from the exertion by the time we stopped.
Aunt Dodie glanced over her shoulder. “We’re here.”
Golden sunlight filtered through trees that surrounded a small clearing, gilding the bushes, warming the dark brown earth.
“Some years, there’s a bumper crop.” Aunt Dodie took one of the buckets from me. “And some years you have to look hard to find even a few. Let’s see what sort of crop we have this year.”
I stood there, feeling tired and cranky.
She leaned over and plucked a purple huckleberry from beneath a leaf. She held it out toward me. “The berries are tiny and the bushes they grow on seem so scraggly and worthless, it’s easy to overlook them.” She popped the huckleberry into my mouth, then added, “But they’re wonderfully sweet to the taste.”
She was right about that. The burst of flavor on my tongue left me wanting more.
“When I was a girl, back in the ‘forties, my father used to bring the family to McCall in his Studebaker. Your grandfather loved huckleberry season, loved his huckleberry pancakes with huckleberry syrup. So up we came, every August.” She set to work then, bending over the nearest bush. “It took much longer than two hours for the drive back then. But oh, the view from the mountaintops. It always made the journey worthwhile.”
I began to pick, too.
We worked in silence for a long spell, moving through the brush, leaning over to pluck berries one at a time from their hiding places. My back started to ache, and I worried about the size of my bucket. At this rate, I would never fill it.
This wasn’t why I’d come to be with Aunt Dodie, I grumbled to myself. I could have stayed in Boise and been miserable.
One more lousy thing happening to me in a string of lousy things.
But while I silently bemoaned the condition of my life—poor me, poor me, poor me—Aunt Dodie sang. It took time for me to really hear her voice through the cacophony of my complaints. It took even longer to recognize the words. They were from the Psalms. She wasn’t singing them to herself or for my benefit. She was singing them to the Lord, singing words of praise for His faithfulness, words of trust in His love.
And somehow, in a way I can’t describe, her song, her words, touched a place in my wounded heart and soul. Like waking from a deep sleep, I remembered that God was loving and just, that He had promised to walk with me in the valleys of my life, that I needed to seek Him and, when I did, I would find Him.
How had I allowed myself to forget all that for even a little while?
“Look,” Aunt Dodie whispered.
I blinked away the tears that momentarily blinded me, then lifted my gaze. There, at the far end of the clearing, I saw a small doe and her fawn staring back at us. I held my breath, struck by the wild, delicate beauty before me. A few heartbeats later, the deer and fawn bounded away, hopping over fallen trees and underbrush until they’d disappeared from view.
“So many wonderful things of God to see,” Aunt Dodie said, “if we just remember to look up every once in a while.”
I turned toward her.
“God’s blessings are all around us, hon, but sometimes we get so focused on our lives, we miss the beauty of the journey. All the steps aren’t easy, and sometimes the climb is steep, but the journey is still beautiful because He’s with us.”
Last night Aunt Dodie had said that I might be surprised at the many ways God could speak to me in a huckleberry patch.
So what have I learned today? I wondered. What have You said to me?
I pondered what Aunt Dodie had shown me, all the things she’d told me as we’d shared these morning hours. I pondered the golden sunlight and the scrawny-looking huckleberry bushes that produced a surprisingly sweet crop. I pondered the whisper of God’s voice, carried on a mountain breeze into a woman’s broken heart.
Then I smiled. For you see, I’d learned I couldn’t find the huckleberries until I leaned over and searched for them. Many of God’s blessings were like that, tiny and hidden from easy view. But not recognizing them—the huckleberries or the blessings—didn’t make them any less there, any less bountiful, nor any less sweet.
Strange. Knowing that didn’t change the circumstances of my life. Barry still had a new girlfriend, and I was still jobless and without a home to call my own. Yet knowing it seemed to change everything.
Aunt Dodie was right. God hadn’t promised me a rose garden …
But I think He might have promised me a huckleberry patch.
Six Lessons from the Huckleberry Patch
“God never promised us a rose garden, but maybe He did promise us a huckleberry patch.”
1. Like all crops, some years there’s a bumper crop, and some years you have to look hard to find a few.
2. They come back better the next year if you pick and enjoy them this year.
3. It takes a lot of hard work to fill up a bucket.
4. They’re sweet but tiny.
5. Sometimes you get seeds in your teeth.
6. If you let yourself look around while you’re picking, you’ll see wonderful things in the forest.