My mother’s best friend, Mrs. Ballis, grew up on a farm in Kentucky. Both women had daughters, quick minds, ready wit, a solid work ethic. And they were particular about their produce. During the summer they drove to the “pick your own strawberry fields” to stock up for the season.
Today is perfect weather for the outing. Hot & humid. Mom has on her sturdy attire. Mrs. Ballis and her daughter, Mary, (my best friend) wait by the car. My mother tells me to be a good girl for my father and turns to leave. I am immediately distraught. “Please, can’t I go to?” “Alice, you hate picking strawberries.” “No, I LOVE picking strawberries. I want to make my own strawberry shortcake. You know it’s my favorite. I’ll be good. I’ll work hard. You’ll see.” Pleading. Tears. Mom is a person not easily swayed. “You’ve got on your good pants and blouse and there’s no time to change.” “I’ll be so careful. I won’t get a speck of dirt on them.” I am earnest.
Mrs. Ballis and Mary ring the doorbell. Mom says, “This is not for fun. This is work.” “I promise I won’t have any fun.” Knocking at the door. Mom relents–against her better judgment. We pile in the Chevy.
It is hot in the backseat. Mary would rather nap than talk to me. I am thirsty. I have to go to the bathroom. I am so bored. I am not a fool. I am quiet.
The scent of fresh fruit surrounds me long before I see the fields.
The women order bushel baskets for themselves and a large rectangular basket for Mary. The man behind the counter hands me a basket smaller than the one Barbie took to her Malibu Dream House.
I protest. “Moooom. This is no fair”, I say, stomping my feet, careful to avoid puddles. My mother reminds me that we are charged by the size of the container. If isn’t filled to the top it is “A Waste”. My mother hates “Waste”. She gives me a very hard stare. I wither like the dried out vines in the paths.
We spread out. I find a spot that has little mud and lots of plants.
Let the harvest begin!
Reasoning that we pay the same price for a perfect strawberry as an imperfect one, I pick only the best. I move leaves aside, rejecting berries as too young, too green. Eureka! Ruby red. No blemishes. Tender to the touch. I find another and another. I’m on a roll. I start to put the fourth strawberry in when I spot a problem. It will crush the fruit below. The world will never know how wonderful they were. What a waste. We hate waste. I eat all four. Five new strawberries. Same problem/same solution.
The sun is setting. Mom is calling my name. “Alice. Alice, it’s time to leave. Where are you?” I can’t move. She comes upon me sitting atop a clump of vegetation, feet stuck in the muck. She assesses the situation. “Your clothes are ruined, your feet are filthy and your container is empty. What happened?” I explain the Great Strawberry Dilemma. Her response is, “They haven’t been washed. Your face is pale. You are going to get sick.” She is right. I realize those gurgling noises are coming from my stomach.
I trudge to the car, feeling queasy and sorry for myself.
I am never to see those bounteous fields again. I don’t look back as I stretch my legs and sleep all the way home, dreaming of dessert. Hot fudge sundaes.