BerryPicking: A Memoir
Hortense S. Gordon
WANTED: Blueberry Pickers – Age, Sex and Marital Status not important…
However, applicant must meet all of these requirements:
- must be able to distinguish between ripe and unripe berries;
- must have eye-hand coordination necessary to transfer berries from bush to pail;
- should be able to direct at least 90% of the picked berries into the pail rather than the mouth;
- should be able to steadfastly hold on to a pail of berries in spite of an attack by a bee, wasp, spider or other creature;
- must be able to distinguish between blueberries and blackberries;
- should have conquered the fear of snakes;
- must have the stamina to walk miles through woods and fields without whining;
- must be able to relate to an open-air toilet, and be proficient in the use of large trees leaves.
Although unwritten, these requirements were well known by everyone in my family.
To be able to go on an all-day pick had been my dream for as long as I could remember. My two older sisters, with their superior ways, had filled my head with berry picking tales. At night they would smugly relive hair-raising encounters with mean dogs. They would both vilify and canonize each other over such things as major spills, great finds and bravery in the face of bees, and would brag unceremoniously about the huge amount of berries brought home. There were quiet night whispers about finding signs of Elmer, an old man who reputedly lived in the back woods. In view of their major sacrifices I began to feel guilty whenever a canned berry crossed my lips.
The final decision as to who went berry picking and who stayed at home was always left to my mother. Looking back now, I can understand why.Berrypicking was an important part of the family’s economic structure, equal almost to our vegetable garden. In the short season from late June to mid-August, the woods and fields provided the berries that dotted our pancakes and muffins, that stood canned in Mason Jars on shelves in the cellar, and the berries that congealed into the jellies and jams spread on our biscuits all winter.
So each year, as soon as the ground began to thaw and I could see the faintest promise of spring, I would begin again to try to convince my mother that THIS year I would indeed measure up.
When it finally happened, it didn’t come about the way I’d dreamed. Our younger brother unwisely chose the summer of my 9th year to come down with a bad case of whooping cough. Our mother would have to stay close to home for a while.
“Take Hortense with you. She’s big enough,” I heard her tell my reluctant sisters, apparently reasoning that half a picker is better than none!
And so it was that each morning, equipped with a long-handled pail and a meat sandwich, I would follow my two sisters into the woods. And they, to show their displeasure at having to be burdened with me, would stretch out their legs and walk very fast so that I would have to run.
Those few weeks, that summer, were times of blistered feet, spilled berries, stomach aches, bee strings, torn legs, bruised egos and chigger bites in places that I couldn’t even scratch. But it was also a time of blue tongues, teamwork and shared secrets; a time in which I learned that in dense woods and in open fields far from home, it was okay to abandon your assigned role.
With the sun beating down indiscriminately upon our heads, pails were carefully filled with blueberries, dumped into larger pots and then gratefully returned to the picker to be filled again. Cooling drinks became rewards, and the guilt of an occasional mishap was shared equally by the three of us. My sisters and I had a common goal, and for a brief time that summer I too stood tall.
The blueberry seasons of my life came and went. The woods of my childhood no longer exist. Most of the wild berry bushes have died out. Highways, stores and houses have claimed the land. But I claimed the memories.