Strawberry Picking

This endeavor began when my coworker arrived one morning with a bowl of washed strawberries with the tops cut off. She said she had gone strawberry picking at an orchard on the way to Stonewall. There are a lot of wineries and orchards out that way and so it is a notoriously dangerous area to drive through because of all those drivers with their head out the side window instead of focused on the windshield…sight seeing. She had been berry picking around dawn and she had washed and cut the tops off many of the berries and brought a mixing bowl of them up to the facility to be divided between us and the patients. She even had little plastic baggies to dole out the berries to various patients. We set about finding out who had allergies or dietary restrictions and then doled out the strawberries to those who could have them and wanted them. One by one i saw their faces light up as they skeptically took the food gift and then popped it in their mouth. The realization would flood their face as bright red juice ran down their fingers and onto their clothes. A spark would return to their dead eyes and with excitement the patients would exclaim things like, “this is sun ripened” or “that’s from a farm!” They were having that moment when they recognized this was no rock hard grocery store gas ripened fruit from a truck. This was something full of juice and sugar, soft that squished easily beneath their fingers. Something sweet. It brought the patients so much joy that at the end of the week i figured i’d go to the same orchard and get us some more. The problem was, i didnt go at the crack of dawn. I went mid-way through the work day on my lunch break. My coworker had said that the person who told her to go pick there told her that if she wanted the sweet ones she had to pick them first thing in the morning. I was confused by this because in my mind the way to get a sweet strawberry was to stop watering it so much towards the end of the strawberry forming, thus starving the plant for water and concentrating the sugars. If you water too scarcely the plant will die. If you water too much the berry will be bland and water logged. There is a sweet spot of giving the plant just enough water to expend the energy to make the strawberry, but not enough to dilute the sugars. Well i soon found out that her warning had more to do with people than strawberries and it was a valid and useful piece of information that i should have heeded.

I found the orchard and made my way up the hill where there was an area of covered picnic tables on a concrete slab and a woman was standing next to a pile of cardboard boxes in various stages of assembly. I told her i’d come to pick berries and she handed me a cardboard box with a metal handle. She said it was a flat rate of two dollars for the box and then they’d weigh whatever i picked in the field when i came back and decide how much to charge me based on the rate per pound, which i dont remember at the moment. It wasnt important to me at the time. Had they said it was 20 dollars a lb i still would have gone picking, determined to see the excited faces of the dementia patients as they recognized something from long ago (it was not 20 dollars per pound). She gave me specific instructions to stay on row 3. I was not to leave row 3. A man came out of the fields with a box full of dark maroon juicy berries and he said, “uh, theres still some good ones on row four and maybe a few on row three but a lot of good ones on row 4.” The woman glared at him with downward turned lips as if she was holding her tongue but wanted to say something. Then she turned to me and reminded me that i was only to stay on row 3. Im a rule follower so i did what i was told. I entered the row with the number 3 painted on a piece of wood in front of it. I immediately saw white and whitish pink strawberries on the plants, so i kept walking. I walked until i was about 1/3 of the way down row 3. There the strawberries became bright red. I had a look around and realized what had happened. People had been picking these 3 strawberry rows since dawn and now all the sweet strawberries were taken. I would have to become creative if i wanted to bring the patients anything good to eat. I understood my coworker’s advice now. It had nothing to do with sugars, watering, or sunshine. To get a sweet strawberry, you had to outrun other people who wanted the same thing. How sad. I decided over the course of the next hour that people should not be allowed to pick their own strawberries, or if they were they should have to reserve an appointment a week in advance and the rows should be divided and the pickers should be confined to their piece and supervised by a security person there to enforce the rules. I saw the worst of humanity in those strawberry fields. People were just wretched to each other, in a place with basketballs fed down by a wooden trough to be thrown at the hoop again, a giant bubble station with a metal hoop with two rope handles meant to be pulled by children while running to make giant bubble tubes. This was supposed to be a fun place for families to enjoy themselves and make memories, and eat sweet juicy things. Instead it was like the hoarding of the toilet paper in walmart all over again and i wondered what on earth the world was coming to. I focused myself on lifting the leaves of plants on row 2 and row 3 and searching for hiding berries left behind by fast pickers who didnt bother to move the leaves. I found some. I also found a lot of berries that people had picked and then probably turned over to realize that only one side was red. They put them back on the black plastic in the hot sun where the berries became warm and weirdly mushy and stiff at once. Stiff because they werent ripe and mushed in places because they were basically cooking on the side touching the black plastic. They smelled fragrant as they melted which was how i found them. I was astonished how many berries were just lying around unattached to plants. People had picked them in haste and then decided they didnt deem them of quality to pay for at the weighing station. Now they would never ripen, but if they had left them on the plants those berries would have become ripe and dark maroon in time. People were so careless and greedy. In their haste to outdo each other they were wasting product.

As i got further down row 3 the young men and women in front of me began running. There were two groups of them. It seemed to be two separate gaggles of teenagers or young twenty somethings hanging out and flirting while picking berries. They ran to stay ahead of me and the young men filled their shirts with berries as fast as they could saying things like, “come on, she’s gaining on us, she’s coming, hurry!” The young women with them pleaded for them to stop and advocated that they leave some berries behind for others but the young men were showing off for the ladies and jumped about the rows running and laughing and shoving each other in some kind of peacock display of physical ability and fueled by hormones and immaturity, couldnt be reasoned with. One of the young women began taking a few berries out of their box and leaving them on the black plastic near the plants as the groups headed back to weigh their haul. I saw what she had done and i picked up the berries she left me. They were fairly good ones so i put them in the box.

There were several people over on row 4 even though we had been told not to go there. There were some young men by themselves and there was a mother with five children. The mother was carrying an empty box. I noticed her because one of her children was crying and it wasnt the toddler. It was an older child. He was crying and flailing his arms in frustration. I listened to see what it was he was so upset about. I heard the woman say, “No. Eat the whole thing. Just put it in your mouth. Put the whole berry. Eat the leaves.” Frustration level mounted and she began yelling at the child in spanish, who apparently didnt think the soil covered leaves tasted good and didnt want to eat that part. All four other children were like vacuum machines going down the row and eating every berry in sight, leaves and all. These berries would never be weighed, thus she was feeding her children for 2 dollars…the price of the box. My chest welled up with anger. These were not millionaires. These were struggling farmers that counted on the income they made from the product they sold. Theres a special place in **** for those who steal from generational farmers riding the poverty line as if it were a bull at the rodeo. I wanted to slap her in the face for making the children eat the unwashed dirt covered berries leafy greens and all. I was about to tell her when another woman came up and pulled her shirt sleeve and said, “Un uh, honey, no, those berries are covered in pesticides right now in the fields. They need to be washed. Dont give those to your babies like that. Its full of chemicals.” The woman yanked her arm free and told the other lady to mind her own business. The children who were waiting further instruction, returned to eating. These berries were covered in dirt and probably a lot of chemicals and had to be at the very least gritty as the children chewed them. I would have paid for her box gladly if she had asked but this was not the way. If you are down and out i will pay for your strawberry box but stealing from the farmers was just never going to be the way in my mind and in my heart. At this point the lady from the picnic tables showed up and began informing the young men that they had to get off row 4. Row 4 was for tomorrow’s pickers. Row 3 was the last row for today. The woman with the five children ushered her kids towards the weigh station with all of 3 berries in the box. The children chewed as they walked. The row police didnt seem to notice them. At this point i was so disappointed in humanity i could have cried. And that was the state i was in when i finished row 3 with only a third of a box of red, not maroon, berries and turned to realize that even though she knew full well row 3 was spent, the lady under the covered area with the picnic tables had given boxes to more people and sent them up to pick. They had young children in sundresses with them. They skipped about the row and were having loads of fun in the sunshine while their adult family members began to converse about the lack of pickable berries. I walked over to each of the little girls i encountered on the row, 4 in total, and i grabbed a handful of berries from my box and put it in their hands. They didnt understand what was happening but the grown ups did. The surprised little girls held their hands out in reaction and cupped them around the little red berries and then exclaimed, “oh these are redder than the ones we have daddy”…i had watched a couple of the girls picking white strawberries that had just a blush of pink on one side and i knew they didnt understand the details of the situation at hand. They were enjoying the experience but by God the girls should have a berry to eat at the end of the picking, not something completely inedible that would never ripen. The adults instructed the children to say thank you to the kind stranger and they did as told. I was trying to get off the row before i cried as i was so frustrated and disappointed in the pickers who had stolen, hoarded, and wasted, and in the lady who sent those little girls to the row of white strawberries instead of opening row 4 or saying, “im sorry we’ve run out but theres still strawberries already picked in our shop and you can come tomorrow morning if you would like to pick.” I put the strawberries in the girls hands and then hurried off the row before i could encounter any more of humanity’s finest in one day.

When i got to the weigh station i dumped a couple of already picked boxes into my cardboard box and added to the haul so that the patients at the nursing home would have something to eat. They were dark maroon and i guessed they’d be sweeter than the ones i actually picked with my hands since they were a brighter red. The young woman at the cash register saw my scrubs and name tag. She said, “Oh you work at *****?” I said yes i did. Then i began crying. I was so emotionally exhausted by the day i couldnt help it. I pulled myself together and told her that she was going to make a lot of people happy, that we had given my coworker’s berries to the residents in little baggies and their little faces had lit up with surprise and recognition as they exclaimed that these were sun ripened, not store bought. I described how wonderful it was to see patients who just sit and stare at the wall or out the window or at the television for hours light up, make eye contact, form words, and remember a different time. We try to engage them in so many activities but sometimes field picked berries can do what we cant, lift the veil of dementia and reach them where they’re at. She seemed depressed. She quietly exclaimed, “My grandma is there.” I asked, “Who is your Grandma?” She told me the name. It wasnt familiar to me. I told her she must not be a patient on therapy, that i was a therapist and i was more familiar with the patients on our caseload. She looked so sad. She said, “yeah, she’s on hospice.” I thanked her. She didnt say anything. Something was really troubling her. I thought about all the patients i had with severe dementia. The farmers of the previous generation didnt know to wear hazmat suits when spraying the fields with chemicals and they did things by hand back then. A lot of them ended up with dementia at too young an age and had to leave their families who couldnt care for them and the farm and so they were with us. I wondered if this was the case with her grandmother.

I called nurses and both of my bosses and pieced together what building the young woman’s grandmother was in. They told me she would not be able to speak or understand what i was saying but she would probably definitely recognize a strawberry. After i finished my paperwork i drove over to her building and told the director of nursing that the patient’s granddaughter was a cashier at the orchard i had just picked strawberries at and i was fairly sure i had just been to her orchard and i wanted to bring her some strawberries from her family’s farm. The director of nursing had them get her divided plate ready immediately. They placed it in front of her. Mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots, and some sort of meat. It was ground for swallowing ease. The aide was sitting beside her in a swivel chair ready to feed her. I released the paper towel of washed strawberries over the plate and a handful of dark juicy berries toppled onto the mashed potatoes. The woman stared blankly into the distance, unblinking. She was an elegant woman with soft white curls and a wrinkled face. Her eyes were a cloudy pale blue. They were very still. They called her name and said, “look, look what she’s brought you! Oh dont these look so good.” She stared wordlessly into nothing. I understood now why the young woman at the cash register had looked so sad. This was her grandmother but at the same time it wasnt her grandmother. She was so far beyond the veil into another reality that it was just her body sitting here and they struggled to even get her to open her mouth for one bite of food. I left quickly as they began the hour long process of coaxing her to open her mouth for each bite and then waiting for her to chew. I remain unsure if she was ever able to eat a strawberry.

But i’ve skipped a bit. I finished my work. Then the nurse let me into the kitchen where i washed my hands and washed some of the berries. I placed them on a paper towel and went around to two of the four facilities i work at regularly (the ones i could get to before their bedtime) and handed out strawberries to everyone the nurse said didnt have dietary restrictions or berry allergies. The staff came to get some as well. I gave away as many as i could wash in the short amount of time before sundown. I’d say i probably gave away half of them. If it had been earlier i would have washed more. I didnt need a whole half a box of strawberries for just one person. Ironically, the ones i picked were sweeter than the maroon ones which were water logged, picked by the farmers and placed in the store. I thought this was funny as i had thought it would be the opposite way. I was having trouble making sure i gave away the sweet ones and not the water logged ones so after i’d had some success getting everyone at least a couple sweet ones i quit while i was ahead, decided next year to go at dawn, and drove my exhausted self home.

I washed the remainder of the berries the next day and ate them over the course of the weekend. Some were sweet but a lot of the ones left were watery. I didnt care. As long as i got to see the patients’ faces light up one more time. A week later my coworker went again at dawn and got more berries and we handed them out to the patients again. I felt satisfied that between my misguided efforts and Angie’s fruitful efforts, our patients were going to be getting fresh picked berries every time the season rolled around. If you have to go to a nursing home, do it in the country. You never know, there may be berries, and dogs, and baby goats on the regular….and your activities director and physical therapy assistant may help you grow tomatoes, beets, garlic, and radishes in the planter boxes outside!

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1 Comment

  1. For my mom, it was yellow pear tomatoes. A hand full of those would, for a moment, seemingly turn off the dementia and take her back to her childhood.

    The smiles were priceless.

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