Thursday, August 7, 2008

Strawberry Lessons

The rising sun was peeking around the house. The birds were singing their morning greetings. The dew was glistening off of the grass. There was a bright golden haze on my strawberry patch. I had come outside that morning to pick a few strawberries for breakfast from that backyard patch. Of course, as I picked, I began to sample a few berries. I had to taste just a few to make sure they were “good”.

It was the teenager who eventually found me. By then, the sun was all the way around the corner of the house. My half full strawberry bowl had long since been abandoned on that dewy grass. I hadn’t had a shower, I was wearing ripped shorts and a bleach-and now berry-stained shirt and my hair hadn’t been combed. I had berries in both hands, a few in my mouth and an accidental dribble of juice running down my chin.

I looked up at the teenager and grinned.

She was shaking her head in my direction. “Mom!” she barked from the back patio with one hand on her hip. “Look at you! Your lips are completely red, you have seeds in your teeth and you have a squished strawberry stuck to your knee!” I was beginning to think she was judging me. I think she thought I was weak.

But it wasn’t really my fault. The strawberries from my backyard patch weren’t normal strawberries. You couldn’t buy these berries. These berries couldn’t be shipped hundreds of miles. These berries wouldn’t last a week stored in a plastic clamshell or cardboard box. These berries had been fertilized only by the rain and the sun. These berries were soft and small and delicate. These berries were as red in the center as they were on the outside. These strawberries smelled like strawberries and shocked you with their sweetness as they melted in your mouth. These berries were the quickest way to summertime nirvana.

My love affair with the strawberry began in my early childhood. In fact, I grew up in an area that was home to acres and acres of strawberry farms. I remember enjoying the local strawberry festival year after year. I remember eating sugared berries over homemade angel food cake for birthday celebrations. I remember making enough homemade strawberry jam to line two shelves of my grandma’s pantry. It was the summer of 1979 though, when the strawberry became so much more to me. I was 10 years old when the strawberry became one of my life’s greatest teachers. The child labor laws must have been non-existent. The Mexican immigrant labor had yet to arrive. I have the paycheck stub to prove it. It was the summer of ’79 when I went to work…picking strawberries.

The berry bus picked me up on the corner before 7 and dropped me off late in the afternoon. I spent my days on my hands and knees in the dirt. The AM radio was blasting Blondie and Donna Summer. The older girls flirted as much as they picked. The boys threw as many berries as they picked. On hot days, the owners of the field would bring popsicles. The picker of the day would get a special t shirt. I was young and shy and small and afraid. I was afraid I picked too slowly. I was afraid the checker would notice how many berries I had missed. I was afraid the big girls would make fun of me. I was afraid the boys would hit me with a berry. I was afraid the owner would lay me off at the end of each day, my lunch would get stolen and I would lose my punch card-the only proof I had of how much I had picked. But most of all, I was afraid of the outhouses. I refused to use them. And one day, on the bus ride home I just couldn’t hold it any longer. And then, of course, I was afraid someone would find out that I was a 10 year old who had peed my pants on the berry bus.

Despite my fears and despite my lack of all day bladder control, I am grateful for that first summer picking strawberries. I made $93.00 that summer. It was enough to buy a couple of pairs of wide legged San Francisco Brand jeans and my first pair of Nike shoes. And somehow, those jeans and shoes meant more to me than they normally would have. I had bought them with money I had earned myself.

In the summers that followed, I moved from the strawberry fields to other kinds of field work. I spent 8 hours a day digging flower bulbs out of rows of dried up dirt that ripped apart the skin on my fingers and drilled in under my finger nails. I walked, bent over, along rows of spinach for hours on end, determining if the plants were male or female, while my back screamed out in pain. Other kids in my community also worked raspberries, blueberries, peas, hay, potatoes, cucumbers and a few other miscellaneous crops. It was hard, physical, back breaking labor. We worked in the rain and we worked in the heat. And at the end of the day, we went home tired, but proud, of the small amount of money we had made that day. At the end of the day, we went home having learned, first hand, what hard work really was.

Working in the fields was a rite of passage for most of the kids in my community. It shaped our childhood and helped mold us into the adults we would become. We remember summer crushes formed amidst strawberry plants. We remember the kid whose rule was “pick one, throw one, eat one”. We remember being too short for the raspberry picking crew. (Ok, maybe that is just me.) We remember daydreaming in the summer sun and working on getting a good tan, back when that was a good thing. We remember rain gear and mud covered rubber boots and dirt stained knees we thought would never come clean. We remember car pools and crew bosses and the field that used to be where the motorcycle shop is now. We remember turning around to find someone had stolen the flat of strawberries we had spent all morning picking. We remember hating iris season in the bulb fields because those tiny bulbs were so difficult to find buried deep in the 200 foot rows of overturned dirt. We remember the girl who bought a Camaro when she turned 16 with 7 years of saved up field work money…and a bit of parental matching money. We remember the time the spinach bus slid off the muddy road into a ditch throwing us all to one side of the overturned bus. We remember crawling out of the emergency exit door, walking the rest of the way to field and getting right to work. Such good times….

When the teenager found me in my own strawberry patch that morning those memories all came back to me. I felt those early summer mornings all over again. I sensed the unearned potential. I saw the dew and the dirt and the plants. I saw that awful outhouse. I smelled the rain and the heat and the sweat. I smelled the cocoa butter suntan lotion and heard the music playing in the background. And I remembered the people-the people I grew up with, the people I worked with, the people who went through the same experience as I did. The strawberries in my backyard patch are the best I have ever tasted. But they also represent so much more than that. They remind me of the many memories and valuable lessons learned during those long summer days of my childhood spent working in the fields.

“Come on out here!” I finally yelled to the teenager on the patio who had slept in late, missing completely the feel of the early summer morning. “We’ve got some work to do. There are tons of strawberries to be picked. Oh, and could you bring me a stool too? I think some of the raspberries are ready!”

Check This Out!

The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones is a novel that was hard to put down. Full of fabulous descriptions of Chinese food and history and traditions and landscape along with a tiny bit of mystery and romance, The Last Chinese Chef was one of those solid books that are read in just few days because you must know how it turns out.

The husband is also insisting on a recommendation for Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm and an Untold Rescue. Written by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, this is a great book for those who like shockingly true history, military, war, ocean storm and hero stories all rolled into one fabulous adventure.

Christian singer Natalie Grant is our latest musical obsession here at Slightly Exaggerated. We are particularly enthralled with her songs Held and I Will Not Be Moved.


Anonymous said...

Hey YOU...being 'one of those kids' your memories brought back all of mine, crystal clear. Thanks for taking time to so accurately write about that MV pre-teen work rite of passage...the fields. VK

Cheryl M. said...

I think I was on that bus! Or did that happen to every spinach crew? Did you read the short story So Little Time by Ryan Boudinot (another hometown kid)? It has bulb picking as a central theme.

Anonymous said...

Blueberries, strawberries, cucumbers, oh my! I got laid off in Blueberries. I didn't have that great of a work ethic when I was 11, but I got better for strawberries. Randall D.