Strawberries are ripe at our local Pick-Your-Own and so Char and I set out early on a dazzling morning to harvest enough for jam and such. We arrived a bit ahead of the crowd so it was mostly quiet during our time in the fields. Perfectly suited to falling into a strawberry reverie.
The sense of smell evokes the strongest nostalgic memories and I told Char all about my Grandma Brown and our berry-picking days together in my youth. Here was a little woman who would drive the back roads to find the best concentration of wild blackberry bushes, ready for picking, and then pull her giant sedan over the edge to park. She’d climb out with her cans and bowls, and commence to scaling the rocky embankments. Her containers were filled in double-time compared to my own and I was always astonished at how she would surface to help me finish. It never occurred to me that perhaps I was eating or dawdling during the time that she diligently completed our task.
Many times I’d scan for black bears. Grandma went to the most far-reaching berry patches that she could drive to, some of them being quite wild habitats. On a few occasions she’d find herself alongside a mother or a cub and quietly, quickly, leave the scene, allowing the furry friends to fill their tums.
I credited Grandma for the design of a system in which she would wear an empty 5-lb. coffee can, which was corded, around her neck and rested just-so on her chest where she could drop the berries in, two hands at a time. She had a couple of sizes of this set-up and would invite me to wear one as well, so as to speed along my picking. I never fully appreciated the aid and after the novelty of being allowed to wear it had worn off, I would go back to my singular bowl or can.
I just wasn’t that serious about quantity but instead studied quality. Each berry would require scrutiny and sometimes a distracted young girl might taste-test to ensure the sweetness. I’m quite sure I ate half of the berries I’d ever picked.
But Grandma invited me still.
When I was a young teen, I had my first job in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. It was a hilltop blueberry farm where low-growing bushes competed with heather and other alpine flowers over the ledges in the fields. My job was to sort berries which rolled by while I was seated at a conveyor belt. I was a wiz at this and, paid by the hour, I was able to happily chat and meticulously comb the rolling blueberries for green bits, unripe berries, stems, occasional bugs, and the like. This must have been the beginning of my mad typing skills because I still recollect the thrill of the challenge of cleaning the belt-of-berries in record times.
Rarely I was sent into the fields to pick. On those days, I joined a team of some teens and migrant workers. The more mature group seemed serious and less interested in my chat. They were quieter and more rugged than the sorters. This makes sense, now, as many of them made their living for their households by travelling from one farm or orchard to another through the seasons in an effort to support a family. During the course of the sunny, cloudless days, I would settle into a lichened outcrop and daydream. My hand-rake tool for scooping through the low-growing bushes would sit at my side while I found wild blueberries with my fingers and popped them into my mouth all day long. At the most, I harvested two 10-pound boxes full after 8 hours. At the least, I had half of a box to show for a days’ work. As this was a paid-by-the-box job, my paycheck was less fruitful and fortunately, they missed me on the sorting line.
The other day, I couldn’t help but notice that Char also had the Grandma Brown work ethic whilst we picked. Quietly and diligently she filled the colanders and enamel ware bowls. I asked, “Have you tried any yet?” and she answered “Just one.” Meanwhile I think I’d eaten a pound.
I have no shame in having taste-tested the product. The berries were organic, but pricey, and I feel like a shareholder after the bill we paid at the end of our stint.
I’m still the little girl in the field. My 16-year old daughter out-picked me by a mile while I rambled, ate berries and daydreamed.
And it was heavenly.