Pickers

Summertime could wreak havoc on my mother’s nerves. School recessed and for a young family with no money, well, there was the lake, there was the junkyard, and there were blueberries in late July. My mother insisted on full out tennis shoes for each of us kids on days when she couldn’t tolerate us lounging about the house any more, and we’d done just about every chore there was to be done. We recognized that brisk hustle as she handed each of us a limp plastic bag, inspected our feet, and gave her nod of approval. With that, we trooped out to our two-toned lilac station wagon and eagerly awaited arrival at the county dump. (The two tones were rust and flecked paint—signs of healthy wear during Michigan winters.) We could keep whatever we found, as long as it fit in our bag. I imagine the sight of us roving excited youngsters, spanning out over the mounds and mounds of trash—treasures lay hidden, we knew that. But where? This was better than an Easter egg hunt, but time was of the essence.

We stooped, hunkered, sifted, and ran over to see whether one of the others relished what we found before deciding whether to bag it or not. I remember finding an unclothed, sooty Skipper doll. This find held many possibilities as I imagined how to clean and outfit this cherub at home. We found small plastic GI Joe figures, marbles, a toaster that looked pretty new, but that my brother reluctantly set back down on account of its size. My other brother found a tennis racket that just needed a few strings to be re-attached! Too big. Overall, these afternoons were jubilees of discovery! But we knew when Mom was done, we were all done too and right now. She never had her own bag, and I imagine that she must have filtered in and around the periphery of the five of us at that time, much like she did when we went swimming. Too soon, we were herded back into the car, heading for home, excitedly examining and showcasing each and every find. We did this so that there would be no question as to whose was whose when these treasures came out of the sudsy bucket back home. At some point in time, we stopped garbage picking, and I can only suppose Mom saw something that she didn’t like over there. That’s all it would take and she would chalk garbage picking up to a summer activity of the past.

Being pickers at heart, summer blueberry picking proved to make money moguls of us all. For this, the required work ensemble consisted of a belt for each of us, and our garbage picking, foot covering tennis shoes. Most of the summer we went barefoot, but there were times when we had to wear real shoes, and besides garbage picking, or church, this was one of them. After all, there might be snakes. Once again, Mom inspected us, occasionally handing someone a comb, or scrubbing off a mouth, before heading out to the fields in the early mornings. She had the mother’s gift of foresight and miraculously packed our lunches and filled thermoses with water each morning. Just before the sun came up, there we stood. A motley crew, the Miller Brigade, strapping on silver buckets awaiting orders as to which rows to clear. Working quickly and quietly, the thud, thud, thud of berries hitting the bottom of the buckets, and an occasional warble of a bird were the only sounds of dawn. Soon, the radio-toting, boisterous, late morning crew appeared and we were happy to share their sounds of Motown for the rest of the day. Diana Ross and the Super Supremes made picking so much easier! In spite of hauling a little one or two off to the port-a-potty now and then, it seemed no one picked faster than Mom! After filling a pail, we dutifully carried it to the field super who kept tally of how many buckets next to each person’s name and watched us dump the berries into a bigger receptacle in front of him. This served the important purpose of making sure we weren’t filling the buckets with soft sand from the field and simply adding a layer of berries, which a couple of newbies tried one time. They were swiftly shown the road. Payment was not made until the end of each summer. But when we received our compensation, at fifty cents a bucket, times an eternity of weeks in July and early August, all we could think about was transforming our wardrobes before school started. We felt like we held a secret to success and money- making second only to my dad’s pharmacy business! As time went by, us older kids realized there were better jobs to be had, and blueberry picking too became just sweet summer memories.


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