The joy of strawberries
Lena Scholman thought she knew every type of pick-your-own customer, then a dramatic stranger showed up
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The humid June breeze blew over the irrigation ponds of our family farm, carrying the scent of ripe strawberries across the fields. I held one tanned hand over my eyes, like the gangly teenaged sentinel that I was, and squinted in the distance to see who'd arrive first at the pick-your-own patch, where I'd recently been promoted from the trenches of hard labour. I prided myself on understanding every kind of customer, until the day a red Miata arrived, whose occupant confounded all my notions of what we were selling.
First, there were the jammers. Hardy locals clad in aprons and old clothes, they worked methodically, in and out in a half an hour, arms laden with at least 16 quarts, never leaving even the tiniest berry behind. The small ones are the best, they'd solemnly swear. I got the feeling after they made jam they'd go on to bake bread or churn their own butter. Jammers had muscle memory. Crouch down, lift leaves, move baskets. And later: wash berries, stem berries, stew berries and seal up hot jars. I imagined tidy rows of carefully labelled jam lining their pantries. In the fall, they'd enter their best at the Fair.
Next came the loud, cheerful city slickers who vacationed in the Valley – skiing in winter and sailing in summer. Strawberry picking was an annual event in a calendar year dotted with leisure. They arrived in outfits – white linen affairs. Occasionally, there were matching hats. They hollered cheerfully at kids who ran roughshod between the rows, stepping on the tender fruit, smushing our family's profits into the loamy earth.
Lastly were the retired farmers. They'd moved from their hundred acres into bungalows in the subdivision and didn't need to make jam any more. Past the age for storing up treasures in cupboards, they arrived on their own, in cleaner versions of their farm clothes, and looked for my grandfather before sauntering out to the rows. Often, they'd pluck a blade of grass from the ditch and suck the sweetness out of the stems. Evaluating the crop, they'd tip their John Deere caps in a quiet hello. The wife wants a basket for dinner, they'd say, apologetically, as though their presence in the field required an explanation.
Until that year, I'd grown accustomed to working on my knees, filling endless flats of berries while learning the Spanish words for "it's so hot" (¡que calor!) from the Mexicans who laboured alongside us. We'd wake early to fill the truck before stores opened, before the heat baked us to the ground.
For the first couple hours, when the ground was wet with dew, we picked in heavy wooden crates that slid along the straw, later transferring the fruit to cardboard. Sometimes, the field was too soaked to harvest the delicate berries (they'd spoil if we scooped them up full of rain) so we'd sit by the bay eating doughnuts, waiting for the sun to dry the fields. My dad would get impatient on days such as this, so we quickly licked the icing sugar from our chins, knowing we'd have to make up for lost time later.
Now that it was my turn to stretch my muscles, and walk upright for a few hours running the u-pick, I was delighted.
The day was going smoothly and the traffic was steady, when the flashy red sports car tore through the farm gate throwing up a great cloud of dust. I expected a reckless young driver and was startled to see an old lady unfold herself and hobble over to the patch, her gnarled hands clutching a cane. She smiled at me with a twinkle in her eye, selected a four-quart basket and headed down a row.
I mumbled a few words to her but she didn't seem to care for such pedantic things as instructions. She wasn't a jammer and her chic mauve capris and matching vest were neither farmer's wife or city slicker. I didn't have much time to ponder her uncanny resemblance to an elderly Audrey Hepburn because as soon as she turned, a vanload of locals wanted to pay, a reunion of ski-bunnies needed more baskets and someone's dog whined in protest at being tied up while ducks taunted him from the water beyond the reeds.
What happened next is a blur. I turned my head to count the flag markers and suddenly I couldn't see her any more. Craning my neck over the crest of the hill and back towards the pond, I began to worry. And then I spotted the mauve ensemble I'd admired minutes earlier. Horizontal.
One moment this curious woman was shuffling along in my peripheral vision, the next she was laying on her back in the middle of a row. I dashed out from under my umbrella and ran, the change in my fanny pack jingling in a staccato rhythm as I tried to recall basic first aid.
I crouched down beside her. "Lady, are you okay?"
She stretched pale, crêpey arms above her head and smiled.
My breathing slowed. Huh?
I watched her pluck a juicy, dark red berry from a plant near her head, hold it to her nose and inhale deeply. Eyes closed again, she sighed.
"Isn't it glorious?"
It's been more than 20 years since I ran the patch. These days, I'm surrounded by smokestacks rather than strawberry fields, but next summer I'll head to the Valley, find a row and taste something other than the Florida and California imposters available everywhere.
If no one is looking, I might even lie down. Just to remember.
Lena Scholman lives in Hamilton and Grey County, Ont., where blueberries are currently in season.