Remembering When at the Strawberry Fields

Early this spring I made an effort to give our wild strawberry patch the needed space to flourish. Reckless raspberry vines, invading arms of thorny wild rose shrubs, and even some  invading phlox plants had to go. Diligently I plucked prickly vines as the cleared crop now began to awaken with blossoms appearing en masse. Picking the first bowlful, I couldn’t help but think back to my first real job at age thirteen.

You got it, I picked strawberries at Barker’s Farm in North Andover, Massachusetts. We all babysat back then but this was different. The farm was located on the other side of town where we lived. My dad would drop me off on his way to work at 7:30 and there I was on my own. Under the hot sun I would stay stooped over picking them ever so carefully, so I thought. As I was instructed by Mrs. Barker (who was the #1 boss), the whole berry needed to be cradled ever so gently in the palm like they were precious babies. The stem, she instructed, was to be pinched by thumb and forefinger and nipped off just so. Each berry was to be placed liked sleeping infants laid carefully in the box.

Filled trays were left in the shade until noon time, brought up to the house to be assessed and gone over by Grandmother Barker. It never failed, but I would be slightly admonished for picking them “too firmly”. I was told I needed to be ever more carefully as Mrs. Barker was the commander-in -chief of the strawberry fields. (Didn’t I babysit and treat real babies carefully, I thought to myself?) Every day seemed to be the same after bringing my bounty up from the field, “I think you still are squeezing them a bit too much.” Oh, no, the evidence was the telltale stain on a few fingers which would not wipe off.  How embarrassing if I was to be let go and have to face family and friends about my lack of picking berries the right way! But I persevered moving on to other farm chores throughout the season.

Fast forward to Memorial Day weekend. My sister and I decided to go down memory lane and visit highlights of our hometown. Down familiar roads, stopping in the oldest cemetery, driving by our family home,  getting ice cream at Benson’s and sitting by Steven’s Pond where we spent many a day. It was great to walk the trails of Weir Hill and talking about ‘remember when’.

Heading back to Londonderry we made one final stop – Barker’s Farm. One of the top ten continuously owned family farms in Massachusetts for many generations. I felt compelled to go to the farm stand and purchase some flowers and homemade products. Linda and her husband Scott were working on this Sunday. I mentioned to her how I worked for her mom and my first job there at the farm. Scott immediately held out his hand and gave me a firm shake, smiling all the while. Apparently, Mrs. Barker’s strawberry coddling ways were something of legend and her nature as commander-in-chief of farm operations. They understood my story as she had not changed in all the forty years since then. We laughed and chatted a bit about her matriarch ways concerning those strawberries. Linda could not wait to tell her mother later about a former farm hand stopping by with a ‘remember when’ story.

I did enjoy my time working on the farm and encourage any parent to nudge their children in that direction. I did just that as my oldest daughter worked for Hank Peterson sugaring one season when she was too young for a regular job. “I am never going to let you forget this” I fondly remember her telling me. What goes around comes around. But I strongly feel, “No farms-No food”.

Debbie Curtin writes stories about people, places, events and other topics of interest that engage the reader. As a member of the New Hampshire Writer’s Project, Debbie keeps ‘in the game’ with other like minded people. She has been an artist and creative person all her life and uses the unlimited sources of inspiration that abound everywhere in her writing as another art form.

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