This July I had the privilege to have one of the best summer jobs a body could find between the end of college and returning to teaching. I worked for a strawberry farm. The benefits were lots of time in the fresh air to think, a golden brown farmers tan, and cash to begin to mend the costs of student life. Initially, I thought I would be picking mostly and occasionally selling, but instead I got full days including both. For three weeks, I arrived in the dew-dampened, five-acre patch by seven, seized a stack of four-litre buckets and crawled over the straw between rows of strawberry plants looking for the luscious rubies. It was a really good year for the berries.
Although I sometimes had conversations with my fellow pickers, most often I picked quietly. Who were these pickers? A church friend and co-teacher picked with me, but otherwise I had never met them before. One morning, I distinctly remember the gentle hum of Pennsylvania Dutch to my right as the Old Order girls caught up on the latest news over their berry pails. To my left, I heard the slightly harsher tones of Plat Dietch, as a grandfather, mother, and daughter picked together. Behind me, the fascinating dialect called Mung babbled between the Laotian family, which included parents, four children, and an uncle. I wonder where else in the world one can be doing a morning’s work and not hear one’s own mother tongue.
All this reminds me of a fascinating exchange I heard. The friendly owners of the patch have a dear little son of five or so with brown eyes, freckles, and a royal blue newsboy hat like most Old Order boys wear. The youngest Laotian boy aged eight or so, was asking him some questions.
“What is your background?”
The other boy fidgeted. His mother tongue is Pennsylvania Dutch, and although he knows English, he is not as fluent.
“What is your background?” the Laotian boy repeated louder. (Why do we think that will help?)
The newsboy hat bounced as the boy shrugged his shoulders.
Trying a new tactic, the Laotian boy asked, “Where did your ancestors come from?”
The freckled face hid between the boy’s raised shoulders.
Intrigued and with ulterior motives, I answered the Laotian boy. “His ancestors come from Switzerland or maybe France. Where do your ancestors come from?”
You see, up to this point, I had just heard him and his family called “The Chinese,” but I was quite sure that was not their nationality. It feels racist to me when we misname other people simply because we cannot tell one race from another.
“We come from Laos,” was his response, and I was gratified to know that I have learned a little about Asians in my travels. Laos is a narrow country in Southeast Asia that borders a small part of Cambodia. His round face and eyes reminded me of the people I had seen in Cambodia.
This exchange took place in the shed where berries are sorted, packaged into flats, and sold. After picking for a few hours, I would go up to the shed and help sort and package berries until there were enough ready to load into my car to sell.
The most I ever hauled in my car was thirty five flat. Most days I was parked beside a busy country road on a shoulder wide enough for two cars to park side by side. Sometimes I sold with an Old Order girl; other times by myself. We would arrange our wares and sort any pails of berries we had brought with us. Some days were pleasant—sunny but breezy. We held an umbrella over the berries to preserve their freshness. Other days were sweltering, the humid air barely moving. On those days we were occasionally harried by dark, thick clouds that burst into down pours. The cardboard baskets got soggy and soft. I felt a bit like the mailman, “Neither snow, nor sleet, nor rain. . .” Selling is fun when customers come, but dreadfully tedious when fifty minutes and hundreds of cars go past without stopping.
My first day selling I had gone with my church friend to her spot by a Mennonite bulk food, specialty food, and baking store. We watched a large, black pickup charge in the driveway, long canoe jutting out the back and park emphatically in the most prominent spot right in front of the store. A scrawny teen in baggy shorts got out of the driver’s side and his tall, blonde girlfriend out of the other. They strode to our strawberry stand.
“Oh, I love strawberries!” the blonde chirped and did a little side to side fidget dance. “How much are they?”
“Five dollars for a litre, fourteen for three litres, and twenty seven for the six-litre flat,” I replied. “They were picked just this morning about twenty five minutes from here.”
“Oh, goody!” she reached a hand out tentatively towards the little green baskets. “May I have this one?”
She turned to her boyfriend, and he fished a wallet out of his baggy shorts and pulled out a five dollar bill.
“May I hold it?” she asked, and when I nodded, she picked up the little green litre of strawberries and cradled it in her hands like a baby chick.
“Thank you,” they called over their shoulders as the crawled into the cavernous pickup.
Another warm afternoon, I was selling alone on the country road. A spry, older woman with freckle-tanned skin stopped by to get some berries.
She commented on the wind and the berries in a beautiful accent, and then held out a ten dollar bill to pay for her berries. Before I could reach for it, a gust of wind plucked it from her hands, and with flash of purple, it went under my car. I quickly turned to chase it down, checking on the opposite side of my car to see if the light piece of plastic had already blown that far. It hadn’t. I crouched to look under the car, and by that time the lady had joined me, bending down to look under my car. I returned to the other side of the car, and there it was. After I had retrieved her ten dollar bill, she took it back because she had decided to go with a larger basket and handed me a twenty instead.
“You have a lovely accent,” I told her as I handed over her change. “Where are you from?”
“Oh, I came from England, but it’s been about twenty years since I came here.”
“You still sound very British.”
“Well, I was fifty when I came over.”
“Fifty, and you’ve been here twenty years? That makes you seventy. You don’t look like you’re seventy at all.”
“Well, I live on a farm, and I work a bit on the farm every day. That and I usually swim for a couple of hours in the morning.”
Indeed, the lady in front of me looked quite fit enough to swim and work on a farm and chase down a ten dollar bill—all in a day’s work for this seventy-year-old.
My strawberry job allowed time for observation, imagination, and a few minutes snatched here and there reading a book. However, arriving home around six left time for little more than eating supper, washing the dishes, scrubbing the mud out of my picking dress, and packing a lunch and selling clothes for the next day before it was time to crawl into bed. I learned to appreciate Sunday in a whole new way working six days a week.
Still, I’ll always treasure three weeks of picking those juicy, ruby-red berries, sorting them, selling them, and—of course—eating my share, too.
Pardon, please, but I guess you’d call this berried treasure.