The Raspberry Patch

One summer night, a few weeks past my ninth birthday, my mom announced at supper that I would be picking raspberries for my grandparents the next day. It would be my first job. I was excited about the announcement (I have always liked to be singled out) but was also a little worried: would all my summer freedom, blue sky days, and public swimming pools be lost with this new responsibility? Would I ever just sit back and imagine stories from shapes of clouds? Would I become a drudge slogging each day, every day to the raspberry patch?

On the other hand, even at age nine, I knew working was a part of life; that’s what you were supposed to do when you were an adult: my father was a truck driver, and my mother worked afternoons in the local Five and Dime. Now, since I was the oldest of my brothers and sisters, it would be my turn. I needed to grow up.

The next morning after breakfast, while my brothers and sisters were still peacefully asleep in the large bedroom we all shared, my mom and I walked to my grandparents’ place, just three houses away. They greeted my mom with a hug and a smile. I received a hug from my grandmother, but not my grandfather – we didn’t hug. My grandmother wore a clean checked apron over a flowered housedress. My grandfather wore a white shirt buttoned all the way up to his knobby Adam’s apple, and dark pants with suspenders. I wore a white T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Each of us were, I guess, in uniform.

The raspberry patch was a featured part of a large truck garden which spanned the width of the double residential lot and ran front to back from a half-dozen apple trees behind the two-story asphalt shingled house to the beginning of the railroad’s property about 50-yards to the north. Rather than mow a half-acre of lawn, the typical suburban backyard choice, my grandparents’ planted a garden of cabbages, corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, dill, horseradish, pumpkin, squash, strawberries and raspberries. Raising a large family during the Depression made a family frugal even 30 years later.

This yard and garden had been the backdrop for many summer family picnics and Sunday dinners. Cousins played tag, hide and seek, and “Simon Says” in and out of the neatly hoed rows of the garden. Trampling through the vegetable patches, harming the plants that quivered in dread of our playful chaos, earned an immediate rebuke from parents, aunts, and uncles who took turns overseeing the weekend family circus.

Each of my mother’s eight brothers and sisters were taught the basics of planting, weeding, hoeing, pruning, harvesting, and canning in that garden. Green Bay in the 1950s and 1960s was changing from a one-generation away from the farm small town to an urban entity, and once my cousins and I became city kids, we risked losing our connection to the land. This small-scale family garden was the last nod toward our farming heritage: lessons about the magic of compost and fertilizer, about working together toward a family goal, and about the daily responsibility of work in a garden.

As a nine-year-old, still sleepy from the early morning call, that was obviously not on my mind as I pulled a battered straw hat off a rusty nail in the dusty one-stall garage to join my mom, my grandmother, and my grandfather in the side yard. Were they thinking about my first step toward more responsibility? I would guess so. A connection to the land, even if it was just a family garden, seemed so important to my grandparents that one by one as their grandchildren reached a reasonable age, they were introduced to their heritage by helping with simple garden chores – in my case, picking raspberries.

My mom gave me a quick peck on the cheek and walked back home. After a berry-picking lesson, grandfather assigned me a row next to my grandmother. The berries, plump and dewy, were just ripe and pulled easily from the buds. It was important to let the berry slide off smoothly so the fruit would not be crushed or broken. A sign of a good berry picker was clean hands. Mine were soon stained red and sticky with berry juice.

After I filled my first pint box, I brought it to my grandfather for inspection. “This box isn’t full,” he complained, comparing my box to a quartet of boxes already picked by him and my grandmother. The berries were barely up to the top wire of the box while the berries in the other boxes were nicely rounded. “Fill it up,” he said.

A little dejected but not discouraged, I returned to my row and heaped the box until the berries rolled off onto the dirt. My grandfather nodded approval, and I was given another empty box to fill. I filled that pint, a third and a fourth, when a revelation hit me: I would be paid for this work. At a wage of ten-cents a pint, I could make a whole dollar, if my math was right, which seemed like the wealth of nations to a nine-year-old boy who was gifted with a 50-cent allowance each Saturday morning.

As I was dreaming of how I would spend my loot on bubble gum and football trading cards, my grandfather came up from behind and jolted me out of my reverie.

“You’re cherry picking the row, boy.”

I looked up at him confused. Cherries? I was only nine years old, but I knew there were no cherries here. This was a raspberry patch. He firmly led me by the cuff of my T-shirt sleeve back to the beginning of my row. When he pulled back the leaves of the bushes and separated the branches, there were bunches and bunches of raspberries inside, still unpicked. Where had they all come from? I thought I had picked the bushes clean.

“Pick all the berries, boy. Not just the easy ones on the outside.”

To demonstrate, he reached into the bush with both hands, picking berries efficiently and cleanly, and dropping them into the box I had been working on. When my box was filled and nicely rounded, he took it from me.

“This one’s mine.” He gave me an empty box. “Do the job right, boy.”

Tears started to form in my eyes. A protest struggled in my throat, but I swallowed it back. That wasn’t fair. At least half that box, probably more, should have been mine. I thought those bushes had been picked clean. The berries clustered beneath the leaves had miraculously formed and ripened as I worked further down the row. It wasn’t my fault. I was only nine years old. This was my first job. I looked to my grandmother for intercession, but she had her back turned pretending not to hear. Bottom lip trembling, forcing control on ragged breathing, I turned back to the bushes, continuing to pick more carefully though much more slowly than before.

When my mom came to bring me home about an hour later, my berry picking pace had become positively pokey. I was only midway through my eighth box. A dollar seemed out of reach now, but my mom worked side by side with me to finish the long row. Just like my grandfather, she was able to reach into the bush with both hands and quickly and cleanly pick the berries. I was impressed. When did she learn how to do that? We finished the eighth box, a ninth and finally, my goal, a tenth.

Picking for the day was done by mid-morning and would continue each day for the rest of the week. There was no hurry since the boxes were only sold casually to neighbors from a card table in the side yard. A hand-drawn sign, “Raspberries 25-cents,” leaned against the table leg until all the pints were sold for the day. Then the sign was turned around. This wasn’t a professional operation.

My mom pushed me forward toward my grandfather to receive my pay for the morning. He pretended to miscount my boxes and only fished out ninety-cents from his front pocket. I should have asked for the coin for the tenth box, but I couldn’t speak and just stared at the coins in his outstretched hand. My grandfather scared me. He was a small-man, gruff and rough-hewn. At that time, retired from the railroad and weakened from heart disease, he still radiated an internal energy, like an engine boiler building steam for the long run home.

He looked at me with an intense squint as if he was deciding whether I was worth the effort to talk to. He looked to my mom – who just said, “Pa” – and discovered that he had miscounted and gave me a final coin, a shiny quarter: 10-cents for the tenth box, 10-cents for the box he had taken, and a nickel tip.

“I expect to see you bright and early tomorrow morning,” he said.

My mom squeezed my shoulder.

“Thank you,” I said, head still down, not meeting his gaze.

I turned to walk down the gravel driveway toward my house.

“Wait,” he said. I expected him to have second thoughts and take back the nickel tip. Instead he said, “Here’s a couple of pints you can take back with you.” Surprised by this largesse, I mumbled thanks without prompting as I took one box of the juicy red berries and my mom took the second. I was even more surprised when he added, “I expect that you’ll get better, Douglas, but you did well for your first day on the job.”

Douglas Paul Landwehr’s Bio: I am a Basic Skills instructor at NWTC and was the first-prize nonfiction winner of the 2010 Grutzmacher’s Expose. I have recently completed a Master’s Degree in English at UW – Oshkosh and look forward to more creative writing time.