Last summer I went blueberry pickin’ with a group of friends. It was one of those farms where you can pick the fruit yourself and pay for what you pick by the pound. For many of my friends it was their first experience at a “pick-it-yourself” farm. It was like a field trip. For me, being at this farm brought up something I hadn’t thought about in over 20 years.
I live in a mid-size city on the gulf coast where the majority of the people have never set foot on a farm. Even though just an hour away, across the state line, the highway is lined with farms of all kinds. There the air is sweet of magnolia and only the sound of the breeze moving through the pecan trees can be heard. It’s a quaint little town called Elberta.
When I was a child my Mother and Grandmother with me in tow would drive to Elberta to go pickin’ for the freshest vegetables and fruit. There would be a big sign by the road that said: “U Pick it Yourself” and beneath it would say what they were growing. I absolutely hated going on these trips. On one occasion I remember it being in the middle of July during the worst part of the afternoon. They stuck a bucket in my hand to put the butter beans in and then off they went into the field to start pickin’. I walked down a row, picked a few beans that went plunk in my bucket, and then I found myself a shady spot within the row. I hid there until they finished.
Out there in the field my Mother and Grandmother laughed and picked for hours. I would think, “How in the world are they having such a great time? I am too sticky from sweating, too itchy from mosquito bites, and too dirty from all the dust to even think about cracking a smile let alone a laugh.” However, I wasn’t dumb enough to harass my Mother about when we were leaving. It wasn’t just the fear of being put over her knee that stopped me. I knew that there was even more work to be done when we got home. Fresh produce must be dealt with immediately.
As the sun was setting we would drop off my Grandmother and her half of the produce that they had picked. Then we would make our way home where I knew the “fun” was not over. My Mom would set me up with a bowl and a paper grocery bag. And the peeling of the beans would commence. Snap stem—pull string—run thumb through pod to release the beans—repeat. All night long we would do this. There were other times when I would be shucking corn, snapping beans in half or watching Mom wash the dirt off the collard greens. Then, it was time to boil the beans in order to can or freeze. I would be fast asleep by the time my head hit the pillow on these summer nights.
Last summer, as I walked through the tunnel of blueberry bushes the memory of my pickin’ days came back to me. I watched as my friends became engrossed in what was for them a new exotic experience. Even though I was among my peers I felt separate from the group. As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that I had a unique childhood. My Mother had me later in life; therefore, I was raised by an older generation. My Mom grew up during the sixties in the rural south. While other kids were in the air conditioning playing Nintendo, I was fishing for brim at a country pond or playing in my Grandmother’s garden while she and my mother played canasta.
I didn’t mind being different. For me a trip to the grocery store was a relief. At least there produce can just be picked off the shelf instead of the vine. Even at the blueberry farm with my friends, I was for the first time thankful for my days of pickin’ because I came prepared. They didn’t really know what to wear. Some of my friends were wearing tight jeans and tight shirts causing them to overheat. I made sure to slather myself with plenty of sunscreen, to wear loose fitting shorts and an airy cotton shirt. Also, they were not used to dealing with the bugs out in the country. Due to my upbringing, I am now an excellent mosquito hunter. A friend took a picture of me as I was heading out to the field with my bucket. Later when she sent the picture to me she said, “You’re totally in your element here.” And I was. Between the smell of the rich earth and the familiar lullaby of the cicadas, I felt as though I belonged there. All that was missing was my Mother and Grandmother.
After that day I called my Mom because I was curious to know her thoughts and her memories from those days pickin’ in the field. It turns out that my Mother hated going to these farms just as much as I did! We were more alike than I thought. I had always assumed these trips were some kind of afternoon bonding excursion for my Mother and Grandmother, but it turns out that my Mom had been pickin’ at farms since she was a kid. When she became an adult my Grandmother would call her to go pickin’ and she didn’t dare say she didn’t want to go. I asked her, “Why didn’t you just make up an excuse?” She answered in a serious tone, “You didn’t say no to my Mother.”
She told me that in the beginning going to these farms was out of necessity. There were no farmers’ markets back then. She said it was really hard work, but if you wanted fresh produce, you had to go out and pick it yourself. It was also a lot cheaper to buy produce this way. It would allow you to stock up for months for a very low price. Initially my Grandmother found the names of farms to visit in the newspaper. If there was something that the farm didn’t have they would refer my Grandmother to another farm down the road.
My Mother and Grandmother would usually go pickin’ twice a year; once in the fall and once in the summer. They picked a variety of fruits and vegetables like strawberries, green beans, peas, corn, butter beans, collards, turnips, okra, and blueberries. My Mother was the oldest of seven siblings and sometimes they would come along too. She chuckled as she told me about how one time my Aunt Goldie ate so many strawberries she made herself sick. I asked, “Was there at least something you liked pickin’ in particular?” She replied, “Yeah, blueberries and strawberries because you can eat while you pick!”
It was true; my Mother did not like pickin’. I asked, “Even though you hated being in the heat and doing all that hard work, did you enjoy spending time with your Mother out on the farm?” She said, “Yes I did.” Somehow I knew that already. As I hid in the shade I could hear them laughing and carrying on. I don’t remember my Mother ever laughing the way that she did as when she was out pickin’ with her mother. That is what I remember more than anything about the day when I was hiding in the rows of butter beans. Little did I know it would be one of the last times they would ever pick together. My Grandmother died the next summer.
Out in that blueberry field with my friends, I made my peace with pickin’. It made me remember a special time for my Mother and Grandmother and even though my Mom hated being in the heat, she loved sharing that time with her Mother. I have since asked her to go blueberry pickin’ with me. She said, “Sure!” So, this summer, as soon as those blueberries are plump and ripe, we will head out with buckets in hand to carry on my family’s mother/daughter pickin’ tradition.