Luscious orbs of summer joy. Knowing how to properly snap the stem off the plant without ending up with a juicy red handful of squished fruit is truly an art. Knowing how to properly zip a nearly rotten berry into the side of your friends’ head is another matter.
Waiting on the corner by the mailbox on an early foggy summer morning I notice a runner coming down the road, hear loons crying on the surface of the lake, listen to the dull din of an old 25-horse boat motor, the older guy who lives in the cove trolling for fish again. The rattle and clank of the stake body farm pickup truck coming down the road to pick me up is what I have been standing here waiting for this morning. He stops to allow me to swing myself up into the back, where I sit on the floor/bed of the truck alongside three others who have been picked up to be delivered into today’s “picking field.”
When we arrived in the field, the fog continued to hover just above our heads. We had dressed in layers. The morning will be hooded sweatshirt weather. When the sun began to heat up the day, we slough off the sweatshirts to reveal a long-sleeved t-shirt over a tank top, allowing us to shed layers as we worked picking berries. The reddish brown skin on our hands and under our fingernails by the end of our weary days was not the incentive either. Our mothers complained about the strawberry stained clothing, but our noses seemed to remember the sweet smell of ripened fruit and the juicy taste we enjoyed in a hot dusty strawberry patch.
The pay was actually not what drew us to this summer job, thirsty laboring in dusty fields under hot July sunshine, but the camaraderie, the berry-slinging, the trash talking, the shared lunches, the complaining about picking conditions was what the crew looked forward to sharing. “I can’t even fill a box with these knobby things!” A common complaint until the field manager decided to move that picker to a more lucrative row. “Look at the size of this sucker” was another field cry whenever someone discovered the monster of all berries. The meager wages earned from these few weeks on a summer break made all the difference when going school-clothes shopping a couple of weeks later.
These are childhood memories from Maine in the 1960’s. I wonder what crews volunteer to pick berries for the local farms now? I see a lot of kids lingering around the center of town these days, seemingly looking for something to do. I know many elderly people struggling to manage independent living now who could definitely use some of the youth-energy of a small river town in Maine. I notice a multitude of HELP WANTED signs in many windows as I drive the 20-mile radius around the town where I live. Rather than considering farm work a chore, it was the “Facebook” of our time and a social experience where we learned how to have a conversation, how to care about someone else, what different families were like, and many new words!
Today, I am going to make a strawberry pie! Ummmmmmm.