I drive to the school and pick up my daughters after their final exams. Over lunch, I tell them I want to pick strawberries. They sigh. Summer has just started for them. They want to relax.
Just an hour, I tell them.
They tell me they hate summer. All this picking, picking, picking.
I tell them it’s a short season—Strawberries don’t last.
The room grows heavy with silence and resentments. We eat our sandwiches without speaking. The jubilation marking the end of the school year has passed. No words are exchanged on the drive to the patch. No radio plays to cover up the tension. I find myself wondering why I bother. Is it worth all this?
But there’s something about a strawberry field so full of promise that makes us forget our anger. We each take a quart and split up, tromping through the fields, trying to find the best area, picking quietly and stealthily, so as not to give up our advantage, but occasionally finding such an astonishingly large berry that we have to shout out and hold it up for everyone to see.
They say that scent holds memory; that one whiff of a certain perfume and the memories of your grandmother will come rushing in so swift and strong that you nearly swoon. But sound: Can memories be contained within sound?
There’s a satisfactory pop when you pull a strawberry from the vine. And it’s this pop, this simple click that triggers the memory: My parents were locavores long before the term became fashionable; long before, in fact, the term had been invented. Every year, Dad planned a massive garden from which we would pick beans and tomatoes and zucchini and onions and peas in great quantities. In between harvests, Mom dragged us to farmers’ markets and orchards from which we would bring home baskets overflowing with apples, peaches, pears, blueberries and strawberries.
We’d pick those strawberries, it seemed, for hours, rising early while the bushes were still wet with dew, picking as the fields became more crowded and noisy and the heat pressed upon our backs. The next day, in the coolness of the morning, we’d haul from the basement the twenty-quart stock pot and dozens of dusty jelly jars.
We stemmed and chattered and sliced and chattered and, as we cooked down the strawberries, steam would condense upon the kitchen windows. Mom would raise her finger just a moment to bring a pause to the chatter so she could keep track of the sugar she measured into the pot. We held our words back until she nodded and we began chattering again.
I remember washing and sterilizing jars and bands and lids. I remember the long wooden spoon permanently stained red; dishes sticky with sugar; the dented metal funnel Mom used to fill each jar with warm jam. I remember screwing on each band and wiping down each jar. I remember setting filled jars on an immense pastry board; the popping noise the lids made as they sealed. I remember the leftover jam Mom put into a container; the rows and rows of jelly jars set upon the pastry board, the diamond pattern in each jar glinting in the light of the setting sun.
I remember Dad fixing himself a snack after we’d finished; how he’d leave little traces of bread crumbs and a spoon in the leftover jam and marvel at how delicious that year’s batch had turned out.
And I remember going to the basement, at the end of summer, staring with wonder at the rows of beans and tomatoes; pears and plums; strawberry jam and grape jelly—knowing that the freezer, also, was full of food that we had produced. I remember understanding that we could provide for ourselves.
But I remember, too, as I grew up, how I grew into my resentments. I remember my bitterness at washing endless jelly jars; I remember shelling peas in anger; I remember stemming strawberries in stony silence.
Within twenty minutes, the four of us have picked ten quarts of strawberries.
“Sorry, Mom.” Filibuster gives me a slight smile. Despite the signs warning against sampling, there’s a red stain on her chin.
I laugh. Of course it’s worth it.
I pick strawberries to fill my freezer; to teach my children that they can provide for themselves. I pick so they can know the taste of a sun-warmed berry, plucked from the vine a mile from home. I pick strawberries for the memories—so that I can feel close to my family three hundred miles away. I pick strawberries hoping that, fifteen years hence, the snap of a berry plucked from a vine brings back memories to my children who by then may very well be making memories with children of their own.
Picking food and putting it by for the winter is all about strengthening connections—between ourselves and the land and between one another.
We get in the car, turn on the radio and chatter all the way home.
Labels: Buying Locally, Community, Cooking, Country life, Daughters, Gardening, Growing up, Ohio, Raising Children, Strawberries