Picking Strawberries

THE other day I came across an article recommending that child labor on farms be legislated against the same as child labor in factories and on the street. Logically the argument was sound, even convincing. And yet . . .

My father was an underpaid rural schoolteacher with eight children and a wife who liked to think of herself as a hopeless invalid not qualified for domestic duties. I was third in the long line of children, and second in the line of girls. Mine was the fate of the older sister. Before I was nine I was given a baby to care for. I had to wash him, dress him, curl his hair, and walk him at night when he had the colic. I had to set the table and dry the dishes for ten people, help with the washing, ironing, cleaning, and somehow educate myself — for I was not sent to school.

By the time I was twelve, my father had what he wanted: a thirty-acre truck and fruit farm, some eighteen miles from the downtown markets, where his produce could be sold. My father’s scheme was amazingly simple. His children were to help him grow the produce and sell it. Education? There were books in my father’s library. Anyone who thirsted for knowledge could get it somehow during the intervals between shelling corn, taking care of the chickens, cows, mules, and horses, and working about the house. Cooking, cleaning, and mending were, he believed, as much a part of our recreational activities as carrying the water supply from a spring on a slope some eighty feet below the house, or building fires in twenty-below-zero weather.

Upon the season of the year depended most of the variety and interest we so feverishly sought in our lives. And no season, as I look back upon my childhood, held more delights than early summer, or strawberry time.

A morning in June brought my father’s familiar call promptly at half-past four. ‘Hurry! Get up! D’you want to sleep all day?’

We tumbled out of bed, washed and dressed first ourselves, then the babies, built a fire in the kitchen range, baked the corn bread, fried bacon and eggs, ran to the spring for butter and cream, set the table in the dining room, ate, washed dishes, and had already picked and topped a six-quart carrier of berries by the time the six-forty train rattled past the large orchard. Then, after waving gayly to the brakeman, we placed six boxes in a tray under the particular tree we had chosen, and went back to where old Tim O’Leary — one of fifteen pickers who came in by the day — was straining every nerve and muscle in an effort to set a new record. Tim had been hired man at a Passionist monastery. He was forever impressing upon our minds the curious conviction that God would shorten his stay in Purgatory for kneeling at his picking instead of leaning back on his heels as we did — squatting, as he called it. His contempt for squatting maddened us. But we continued the practice, for the rough straw between the far-stretching rows that ended in a tangle of grapevine, dogwood, redbud, wild plum, and hickory was far more prickly to bare knees than the kneeling chairs at Notre Dame and St.Étienne.

Then, at half-past eleven, one of my sisters and I ceased our berry snatching and went back to the house to get dinner. Such frantic piling of corncobs into the range, such excitement over the mixing of piecrust, the cooking of the vegetables prepared in the morning, the setting of the long tables in the dining room of the old log cabin that was never hot because it had been built of heavy logs. Back and forth we ran, slicing huge hams, great loaves of bread, putting more cobs into the range, frying, stirring, thickening. Then, finally, dinner was spread on clean, red-checked cloths: a dinner of fried ham, onions, snowy mashed potatoes, cabbage, and fresh strawberry pie.

By one at the latest, with the house in order and the baby asleep in a box beside us, we were back at work, Tim still far in the lead,

‘I’m doin’ a hunnerd an’ fifty quarts today,’ he would announce proudly, shifting his tobacco quid to the opposite cheek. ‘Slow ones, you kids are!’

Above us arched the blue sky, hot and cloudless. Faster and faster we snatched at the fat red berries, for, tired though we were, we could not let Tim O’Leary beat us. Some weary outsider might put aside his carrier and steal off through the deep shade of the fern-carpeted forest to the cool of the idle spring, but not we. Our one thought, always, was to outpick old Tim. And we usually did.

‘I’ll betcha put leaves in your boxes,’ he would grumble. ‘Hunnerd an’ fifty I done, an’ it don’t stan’ to reason you kids could be after doin’ more. Well, anyways, I get out from a lot of Purgatory.’

Then there was supper to be prepared, milking to be done. And someone had to help my brother pile the crates of berries into the great ‘covered’ wagon. Someone, too, had to jog with him the eighteen miles to Biddle Market to sell the berries next morning to hucksters, housewives, and storekeepers.

Jog, jog, jog! Often my brother and I would drop off to sleep for sheer weariness, sitting all the while bolt upright, as under starlight and moonlight the wagon moved slowly along the dusty road.

At one, or thereabouts, we reached the market and sought a place on the square. By half-past four we were already doing business, selling stacks of crates to hucksters or retail men. Then, later, came the housewives, most of them dirty and ragged, all of them much in keeping with the grime and filth of the square. Now and then a ragged, tumble-haired child stopped to pick up a fallen berry or radish from the gutter. Across from the square, rising like a tower of peace in all that Babel, old St. Joseph’s spire loomed up before us. Its clock struck clear and serene.

In the hot afternoon sunshine we jogged back home, to fall asleep almost as soon as we had eaten our supper. We knew that there would be another day’s picking ahead of us, and I suppose, according to that article on child labor, we should have felt rather bitter about it.

But, strangely enough, our hearts were gay and hopeful. We were confident that we should beat old Tim again next day.