My grandparent’s part time farm was like a country pond that beckoned to weary geese returning north after a long winter. The strawberry patch was the pond and I was one of the weary geese. I watched the cool spring days grow longer as I waited impatiently for the last day of school that symbolized my flight home and started the first day of summer. My cousins and I were like thoroughbred horses packed tightly in the starting gate on race day, waiting for the bell to open the doors that let us race up and down the straight green rows in search of the juicy red strawberries. Anxiously wanting to be the first one in the field, I would spend the night at their house. The old fashioned wind up alarm clock loudly ticked down the hours that would commence the brisk morning festivities. The last sound I heard was the door close as my grandpa slipped quietly into the house like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The annual event was not recorded on any structured calendar as a holiday, but it brought my family together in a way that no commercial holiday could.
Cousins became like brothers and sisters, working side by side throughout the hot summer to plant, maintain and harvest the golden moments that helped to fashion my work ethic. The constructive competition that I experienced with my cousins was like that of a brood of bear cubs tossing a fresh snagged salmon back and forth not knowing whether to play or eat. Time spent at the local market selling the tasty wares was like the one fish being divided between the brood. The ratio of market days to eager young sales persons did not always balance out. I had to learn how to share with the others and how to step up and make sure I got my equal bite of time.
No matter how hard we toiled in the field, there was always a little time for playful recreation. The precious fruit picked to fill our hungry containers served a dual purpose. When unsuspecting parental figures were occupied with other chores, the ripest, juiciest fruit became heat seeking missiles in search of the most diligent worker bee. The end of the day was near when the sky opened up and rained whatever produce was being picked that day. The diligent one was ambushed and the fight was on. Before the captain of the field could yell, mutiny was accomplished. Soon after the pelting, the truck was loaded and all offenders were properly punished. Punishment usually consisted of manual labor for the malefactors while the innocent watched smugly from the sideline.
The years passed and what once seemed to be a sweat shop to me as a child became a sweet sanctuary to me as an adult. I returned to the farm from time to time to walk around and reminisce. Plucking whatever was ripe at the time, I savored the juice from the succulent fruit. Occasionally I took my son and showed him some of the places that his papa bear roamed, related some of the numerous experiences that his second cousins and I shared and tried to establish the meaning of family in him. As I watched him searching for the biggest berry in the field, I heard in my spirit one more time the loud rooster call of my father urging us to, “pick, pick, pick.”
The cousins moved away and started their own families. The strawberry patch was reduced to a few rows. I recently saw them at my grandfather’s funeral. Where my life began, my grandfather’s life ended while spreading straw between the rows one cold spring day. He died doing what he lived and loved. His last act in life brought my family together one more time via the strawberry patch. Many things have changed, but every time I am in the produce section of the grocery store during strawberry season, I wonder if the family that picked the berries had the same camaraderie attached to their family that I did mine.
Read more articles by Richard Schilke or search for articles on the same topic or others.