the worst job ever

For seven summers, from the age of seven, I picked raspberries with my mom and two brothers. My mom cleaned houses and offices from September to June, and in the summer, family in tow, picked raspberries. Rows and rows of bushes that needed to be plucked clean for farmers. I hated picking raspberries.

My mom woke us each morning just as the sky began its transformation from night to sunrise, awash in orange and pink. Yawning and shivering in the misty dawn, we made our way to the field of farmers I only knew by last name; buckets tied around our waists, coolers of food and blankets in hand. We found our rows by the numbers on the posts and claimed our spots. My mom at the beginning of the row, me at the end, my brothers in the middle. My mom was quick, her hands lined by hard work, she was a machine. She led and loved us with her efficiency, her preparedness. If it rained she brought garbage bags and cut out holes for heads and hands. We slipped them on over our clothes and continued picking. She laid out a blanket for us in the shade where we took refuge when it was too hot, too much. She doled out food and warnings. “Just for a little while and then back to work.” “Okay, mom.” If we were quiet we could stretch out our reprieve. My brothers and I drank apple juice, dug out worms, ate homemade cookies and smashed raspberries between crackers.

The sun hot on my neck, I lifted branches and leaves to pick-pick berries. Fingers stained red, juice running down my arms, I created a game to amuse me. This cluster of berries to the right is a family. The isolated berry nestled in the bush is lonely and it’s pleased to join the others. Low, low on the bush they didn’t see me coming… Gotcha! A few berries begged, “Please, eat me!” “No!” I shout. “You’re too mushy!” Some are sad to be taken, not wanting to leave home. They’ve never been anywhere else! They scream and cry as I send them to the bucket. Once my bucket was full, straining the thick twine at my waist, I emptied the berries into a plastic flat which would be lifted and stacked with many flats, then loaded onto a truck. Roaring to life, the truck rumbled as it drove the unaware and ill-informed raspberries to be sorted and squished, their destinies fulfilled as they became juice and jam.

When I shut my eyes at the end of each day to sleep, dark green leaves holding red berries were all I could see, like they were stitched to the backs of my eyelids. My hands smelled sickly sweet even in my dreams. While others kids played at home, in yards and playgrounds, we were in the fields working. There were moments of freedom; of picnic lunches, and jumping on trampolines slippery with water and soap and no safety nets. We earned money. I learned diligence and discipline. I learned how to work all those summers with my mom and when the season was over we put our money into bank accounts. She said, “You’ll do this with your kids one day.” In my head I was emphatic I will not.

As my kids and I drove up to a farm today, the tires crunching on the gravel road, acres of berries in front of us and people pick-picking, my kids asked, “Can we pick?” I laughed, “No way! You and your dad can do that.”

I parked the car, shuddered at the rows and rows of raspberries and strawberries, walked into the cool store and bought my berries in neat, tidy baskets.

After being on a brief blog hiatus, I’m hanging out with yeahwrite this week, lounging and eating my picked-by-someone-else berries.

34 thoughts on “the worst job ever

  1. Kerstin

    Ha! Good for you for sticking to your “I will not!”. I would have hated having to do that as well.
    Tricky – it probably helped shape you into who you are, discipline and being a fighter and all….

    I never HAD to pick berries, but I used to love going into the woods with my grandpa and pick blueberries.

    Isn’t it just great to be an adult and be able to say NO and break the cycle of things?

    1. heidi Post author

      Kerstin, I was so, so miserable. I didn’t even mention how the rain would sting the scratches on my arms made by the thorns. I learned a great work ethic, but, my summers sucked. 🙂 And, yeah, it is so great to be able to say no.

  2. Michelle

    Heidi, that does sound like a miserable job! I cannot imagine being out in the heat all-day, everyday, in the hottest parts of the summer. Good for you for buying your berries this time! 🙂

    1. heidi

      Hi Michelle! I feel like I’m getting away with something when I buy them.
      It was such a miserable job with moments of okay-ness, but I really don’t look back at that time with any sort of fondness. Except, maybe, and only maybe, learning a good work ethic from my mom. 🙂

  3. Tara Pohlkotte

    So glad to have you back! And with this great tale. I know I’ll never get a quart of raspberries now without thinking of the poor soul responsible for getting them there!

    1. heidi

      Tara!! I’m happy to be back.
      Mostly machines pick them now. Even then there were machines, but people pick them best because they do the least damage to the raspberries. I am so thrilled to buy my berries. Strawberries for me, raspberries for Scott and the kids as they love them and I just can’t eat them. It’s like I’m traumatized. 😉

    1. heidi

      Thank you, Jamie. I thought it might be nice to redeem that part of my life in some way. I still can’t eat a raspberry to this day. I’ll drink the juice, eat the jam, but I cannot bring myself to eat one of those things.

  4. Laurel

    In high school, i had a job putting on a huge dinosaur suit at kid parties. In Arizona, in the summer- but it paid what I thought was a fortune at time 🙂

    Lovely story, and now I would love some berries.

    1. heidi

      Oh my gosh! A dinosaur suit. In that crazy hot weather?! I can’t even imagine. I’ll admit I would love to see a pic of that. 🙂

  5. christy

    Oh my god Heidi! What a miserable job indeed. Was it all day long? Five days a week? I tell you what – I will never again take for granted my berries picked by someone else!!!

    Beautifully written, as always. xo

    1. heidi

      Yes, 5 sometimes 6 days a week. We got Sundays off. Bru-tal! Most of these places have machines that pick the berries now.

  6. Ado

    I won’t take berries picked by anyone for granted ever again! OMG! (-:
    Sending you a huge virtual basket of fresh-not-picked-by-you berries.

  7. Cheryl P

    Laughing out loud (unfortunately with familiarity) as I read that. My parents too were of the “work till you almost die” ilk. I was sent to the fields every summer with my sister (their friends farm) and picked squash, carrots, harvested potatoes, picked rocks and even did chicken catching. Yes, I filled those cages loaded on semi trucks filled with squashed chickens that you see on the highway! Looking back on those summers, I certainly learned work ethic, a desire for an education that would land me a job where physicality and difficult working conditions were absent and most of all a humbleness/kindness towards people whose lives dictate that those are the only jobs they will ever have (and are usually very happy and thankful to have them). Enjoy your summer and great post! CP

    1. heidi Post author

      Another field worker! I knew there had to be more of us out there. Oh, how I envied kids playing and whining about being bored. I wanted to be bored! Instead I was sweaty and exhausted. Oh well. I had a killer tan.
      Enjoy your summer too, Cheryl! And thank you for sharing your story. 🙂

  8. julie gardner

    I love this.

    What a great reminder that what is “leisurely fun” for some (when it is done by choice and rarely) can be hard labor for another…

    We take a lot for granted when we forget this, no?

    Your descriptions, as always, are prefectly lovely and had me right there picking with you…
    And then there in the cool store purchasing my food!!!

    XO

    1. heidi Post author

      You’re so sweet!
      We go to this farm that I mentioned in the post often in the summer. It is just the sweetest place, but, every time I go, the smell, the sight of all those bushes just brings me right back to those summers. And, you know, there is no nostalgia. Although, I do remember, if it was a particularly hot day, we sometimes stopped for a frozen drink (we call them slushes here) on the way home and there was nothing like that first sip after a hot, long day. 🙂

  9. Rita

    Oh, Heidi! Your description is so very accurate. Your experience “stitched” to my brain, my memories — but in a different way. As you may recall, I embarked on a summer of picking with your family. We were pre-teen or thereabouts? Do you remember? Perhaps I lasted longer than a day, but I am certain I did not make it through the week. So much for my first attempt at earning my own money!

    I recall thinking how UN-disciplined and horribly lazy I was because the heat made me lethargic, unmotivated, and on the verge of collapsing on the ground in a heap of whines and tears. (I think I may have done that, anyway?) I marvelled at how you and your family kept at it. (Little did I know how you cleverly kept the feelings I could not hide at bay!) Although I only picked raspberries with you for that short time, it is forever etched in my head. I can still see the rows, the scratched arms, smell the warming, wet earth, feel the heat of the midday sun bearing down. I still shudder and can’t get the smell of berries out of my nose.

    So, you will find it amusing to know that for two summers during my early university days I worked at a berry farm! However, I was the one in the (cool-ish) store, selling the berries in neat, tidy baskets. I thought this a much more pleasant alternative to picking. Whenever the heat became too oppressive, I could step into the walk-in cooler where the freshly-picked berries awaited in flats, ready for basketing. At the back of the garage-like shop, there was a conveyor belt that carried blueberries or raspberries from hopper to basket. The belt allowed me to pick out the squished and haggard. Every customer had a basket of fresh berries throughout — no smooshed ones on the bottom, this was important! The couple who ran the farm were fantastic, and nearly everyday I thought of you as the pickers came in, mopping their brows with red-stained hands clutching handkerchiefs, but wearing happy smiles. I wondered again what pickers had that I did not?

    Alas, I reluctantly gave up that job — not because of my employers, nor the work conditions, but because of a certain breed of customer. (Thankfully the exception, rather than the rule.) They demanded whether the berries looked the same throughout the baskets as on top, why were the prices so steep when they could get them for $x.xx/pound at Safeway, etc., etc.?? These aggressive berry-buyers eventually wore at me. It was the exasperated, overheated Mum with kids in tow, who made my stint at the berry stand worthwhile. She made no comment on cost, nor fretted about basket consistency. She did not treat the stand like a berry drive through. It made me wonder … perhaps they, too, had picked berries in their youth!

    Thanks for helping me to see my childhood from a new perspective once again, gal. xo

    1. heidi Post author

      Oh yes!! That’s right! You picked with us…I do remember! Wasn’t it awful?? The scratched arms…oh, the scratched arms.
      I didn’t know you worked at a berry farm. You should have told your critical customers to just go to Safeway then. Crazy people! Don’t they know how great local berries are?!
      I think if I was miserable the entire time I picked it would have made for a looong summer, so it made sense to just do my best, essentially grin and bear it. By the way, I think you were fine. I don’t remember you whining at all…I think I was happy to have a friend there. 🙂
      Love you!

  10. stephanie

    So vivid! I love the stories you would make up about the families of raspberries you pulled from their homes. That is terrific. I used to do the same thing while pulling weeds from our garden as a kid. All day in the sun, your imagination soared, it had to, or you’d go crazy. The great majority of strawberries found in supermarkets across the U.S. are grown here in CA. And so I see a lot of reports (as well as the labor itself) about the difficulties endured by the immigrant labor force. It’s an awful job. Americans aren’t willing to do it. As always your writing is lovely and evocative.

    1. heidi Post author

      Thank you, Stephanie!
      I remember your post about weeding and I think I commented then about raspberry picking. You’re the inspiration for this post! I always appreciate and love all the knowledge and intelligence you bring to your writing.

    1. heidi Post author

      Nope, I hate them. I like the juice and jam, but do not ask me to eat a raspberry. They are vile to me. 🙂

  11. Galit Breen

    I love this reminder that there’s always another side, another way to look at things, and always – always- another story to be told.

    Love this, my lovely friend.

  12. Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms

    I love reading stories about what shaped you into the person you are today. You take your memories, polish them bright, then offer them up for us to enjoy and ponder.

    So this will make you laugh. I’m nearly obsessed with picking berries in the field because I never got to do it as a child. The grass is always greener. 🙂 Ellen

  13. Julia

    You tell the best stories. What a wonderful recollection of your childhood even though the activity wasn’t your favorite. And I love how you brought it full circle and left the berry picking adventure for your kids to your hubs. Perfect. 🙂

  14. deborah l quinn

    I am surprised that you can even *eat* raspberries. I spent a summer selling fudge at a summer tourist trap and while it wasn’t as physically grueling as what you describe, I went home every day stinking of fudge and burnt sugar. It was years ago and I still can’t eat the stuff. I think the “first world” would be vastly improved if every kid had to spend at least one summer doing the kind of jobs that so often go unacknowledged: the berry picker, the waiter, the orderly, the gas station attendant…that other perspective matters.

  15. Kate Coveny Hood

    A day picking berries would be a fun activity for kids – but I can imagine that would get old (and boring) very quickly. I can barely get my kids to help me take the dog on a long walk with a minimum of flailing and complaining each day…

    This was a good one. I can picture it clearly.

  16. Kim at Mama Mzungu

    But your writing makes it sound like not such a bad deal! What you learned from your mom, the imagination you explored to give life to the little berries. I guess it’s all more romantic when you can be nostalgic about than when you are actually breaking your back doing the work. I loved this piece!

  17. Cindy

    Heidi, Your writing is incredible! I can smell the stench of berries as I read it. I didn’t have to pick berries as often as you, however, my mom wanted us to know the hardships she experienced every day of the summer during her childhood. That berry picking bus came by so freakin’ early!

  18. Alexandra

    Ha!

    Laughing in commiseration.

    How those branches scratched! And always surrounded by the fearless sweet bees.

    I remember having to pick berries, too. My grandmother loved them and she couldn’t get enough of them.

    I will ALWAYS buy mine in neat, plastic green baskets, too.

    LOVED THIS.

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